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Navajo Code Talkers

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Picture of two Navajo code talkers in Australia during World War II.

Navajo code talkers (and cousins), Preston and Frank Toledo at Ballarat, Australia. (July 7, 1943)

Picture from the Smithsonian, courtesy of the National Archives.

In United States history, the story of Native Americans is predominantly tragic. Settlers took their land, misunderstood their customs, and killed them in the thousands. Then, during World War II, the U.S. government needed the Navajos' help. And though they had suffered greatly from this same government, Navajos proudly answered the call to duty.

Communication is essential during any war and World War II was no different. From battalion to battalion or ship to ship - everyone must stay in contact to know when and where to attack or when to fall back. If the enemy were to hear these tactical conversations, not only would the element of surprise be lost, but the enemy could also reposition and get the upper hand. Codes (encryptions) were essential to protect these conversations.

Unfortunately, though codes were often used, they were also frequently broken. In 1942, a man named Philip Johnston thought of a code he thought unbreakable by the enemy. A code based on the Navajo language.

Philip Johnston's Idea

The son of a Protestant missionary, Philip Johnston spent much of his childhood on the Navajo reservation. He grew up with Navajo children, learning their language and their customs. As an adult, Johnston became an engineer for the city of Los Angeles but also spent a considerable amount of his time lecturing about the Navajos.

Then one day, Johnston was reading the newspaper when he noticed a story about an armored division in Louisiana that was attempting to come up with a way to code military communications using Native American personnel. This story sparked an idea. The next day, Johnston headed to Camp Elliot (near San Diego) and presented his idea for a code to Lt. Col. James E. Jones, the Area Signal Officer.

Lt. Col. Jones was skeptical. Previous attempts at similar codes failed because Native Americans had no words in their language for military terms. There was no need for Navajos to add a word in their language for "tank" or "machine gun" just as there is no reason in English to have different terms for your mother's brother and your father's brother - as some languages do - they're just both called "uncle." And often, when new inventions are created, other languages just absorb the same word. For example, in German a radio is called "Radio" and a computer is "Computer." Thus, Lt. Col. Jones was concerned that if they used any Native American languages as codes, the word for "machine gun" would become the English word "machine gun" - making the code easily decipherable.

However, Johnston had another idea. Instead of adding the direct term "machine gun" to the Navajo language, they would designate a word or two already in the Navajo language for the military term. For example, the term for "machine gun" became "rapid-fire gun," the term for "battleship" became "whale," and the term for "fighter plane" became "hummingbird."

Lt. Col. Jones recommended a demonstration for Major General Clayton B. Vogel. The demonstration was a success and Major General Vogel sent a letter to the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps recommending that they enlist 200 Navajos for this assignment. In response to the request, they were only given permission to begin a "pilot project" with 30 Navajos.

Getting the Program Started

Recruiters visited the Navajo reservation and selected the first 30 code talkers (one dropped out, so 29 started the program). Many of these young Navajos had never been off the reservation, making their transition to military life even more difficult. Yet they persevered. They worked night and day helping to create the code and to learn it.

Once the code was created, the Navajo recruits were tested and re-tested. There could be no mistakes in any of the translations. One mistranslated word could lead to the death of thousands. Once the first 29 were trained, two remained behind to become instructors for future Navajo code talkers and the other 27 were sent to Guadalcanal to be the first to use the new code in combat.

Having not gotten to participate in the creation of the code because he was a civilian, Johnston volunteered to enlist if he could participate in the program. His offer was accepted and Johnston took over the training aspect of the program.

The program proved successful and soon the U.S. Marine Corps authorized unlimited recruiting for the Navajo code talkers program. The entire Navajo nation consisted of 50,000 people and by the end of the war 420 Navajo men worked as code talkers.

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