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History & Culture
Navajo Code Talkers - 1940's
When Congress declared war on Japan in December 1941, following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, military leaders faced a quandary. The Japanese were expert code-breakers, so an innovative approach to combat communications was needed … and fast.

American Indians, particularly the Choctaw, had been successful “code talkers” during World War I, but most experts believed this ploy would not work again. However, a veteran named Philip Johnston pushed the military to consider recruiting Navajos.

The son of missionaries, Johnston grew up on the Navajo reservation and spoke the local tongue fluently. He insisted that the complex, little-known language could provide an unbreakable code.

After an impressive demonstration in early 1942, the Marine Corps recruited 29 Navajo radio operators. These first Navajo Code Talkers, along with nearly 400 who followed, developed a unique code and transmitted secure messages throughout the Pacific theater.

An Unbreakable Code
The baffling code included two components. Specific Navajo words stood for common military terms, such as “two silver bars” for captain and “hummingbird” for fighter plane. In addition, the code talkers could rapidly spell unusual expressions using a Navajo word to represent each letter, much like today’s military personnel use “alpha,” “bravo,” “charlie,” and so on.

The ingenious catch was that instead of simply using a Navajo word that started with the desired letter, the code talkers used the Navajo translation of an English word that started with the letter. So for the letter “a,” the code talker could use “wol-la-chee” (ant), “be-la-sana,” (apple), or “tse-nill” (ax).

The code eventually grew to include more than 600 terms, creating an enormous variety of ways to transmit any given message. The Navajos memorized every definition, as it was too risky to carry printed instructions into combat.

Edward Anderson,
a Navajo Code Talker,
displays two books
about these World War II heroes.

Flawless Service
No message delivered in the Navajo language was ever deciphered. Navajo Code Talkers served in the successful battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Thirteen gave their lives in places like New Britain, Bougainville, Guam, and Peleliu.

At Iwo Jima alone, the Navajo Code Talkers passed over 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period. Fifth Marine Division Signal Officer Major Howard Connor declared, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

In fact, the code was so successful that it remained classified until 1968. Only then could recognition of these talented Native Americans begin.

A Grateful Nation
In 2001, in a ceremony at the U. S. Capitol, President George W. Bush presented a Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 code talkers, or their survivors. Congressional Silver Medals honored those who served after the original group.

It was an irony lost on no one that earlier in the century, the U.S. government had struggled mightily to destroy the language and culture of the Navajos and other tribes. And although Native Americans were often treated like second-class citizens in the pre-war era, some 44,000 had served in World War II.

At the medal presentation ceremony, President Bush described the code talkers as “young Navajos who brought honor to their nation and victory to their country. … Regardless of circumstances, regardless of history, they came forward to serve America.”



Sources:
- Senator Jeff Bingaman - Navajo Code Talkers
- The White House - Ceremony Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers
- National Security Agency - Origins of the Navajo Code Talkers




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