The Navajo Code Talkers

During World War II, on the dramatic day when Marines raised the American flag at Iwo Jima, the first word of this momentous news crackled over the radio in odd sounding noises. Throughout the war, the Japanese were repeatedly baffled and infuriated by these seemingly inhuman sounds. They conformed to no linguistic system known to the Japanese.

The curious sounds were the military’s way to give tactics and strategy that the master cryptographers in Tokyo were unable to decipher. This perfect code was the language of the Navajo tribe. Its application in WWII as a secret system of communication was one of the war’s best-kept secrets.

The military was desperate for a way to open clear lines of communication among troops that would not be easily intercepted by the enemy. In the 1940s there was no such thing as a secure line. All talk had to go out onto the public airwaves. Standard codes were an option, but the cryptographers in Japan could quickly crack them. And there was another problem: The Japanese were proficient at intercepting short-distance communications, on walkie-talkies for example, and then having well-trained English-speaking soldiers sabotage the message or send out false commands to set up an ambush.

The solution was conceived by the son of missionaries to the Navajos, a former Marine named Philip Johnston. His idea: station a native Navajo speaker at every radio. Since Navajo had never been written down or translated into any other language, it was an entirely self-contained human communication system restricted to Navajos alone; it was virtually indecipherable without Navajo help.

Without some key or way into a language, translation is virtually impossible. Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the military dispatched 29 Navajos to begin a test program. These first recruits had to develop technical terms of military artillery, since the Navajo had no words for tanks or missiles.

According to Chester Nez, one of the original code talkers: “Everything we used in the code was what we lived with on the reservation every day, like the ants, the birds, bears. Thus, the term for a tank was turtle, a tank destroyer was tortoise killer. A battleship was a whale. A hand grenade was potato, and plain old bombs were eggs. A fighter plane was a hummingbird, and a torpedo plane a swallow. Hitler was translated to “Crazy White Man.”

It didn’t take long for the original 29 recruits to expand to an elite corps of 425 Navajo Marines all from the American Southwest. Each Talker was so valuable, he traveled with a personal bodyguard. In the event of capture, the Talkers had solemnly agreed to commit suicide rather than allow America’s most valuable war code fall into the hands of the enemy.

The language of the Code Talkers, their mission, and every detail of their messaging apparatus was a secret they were all ordered to keep, even from their own families. It wasn’t until 1968, when the military felt convinced that the Code Talkers would not be needed for any future wars, that America learned of the incredible contribution a handful of Native Americans made to winning history’s biggest war.

The Navajo Code Talkers, sending and receiving as many as 800 errorless messages at fast speed during the fog of battle, are widely credited with giving U.S. troops the decisive edge at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

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