The Navajo Code Talkers

The effective code was first conceived of by Philip Johnston in 1942. As the child of a
missionary, he had spent much of his childhood on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. He
was fluent in both English and Navajo by age 9, and he even served as translator when
the tribe negotiated with President Theodore Roosevelt.

When Johnston read a newspaper article about the military’s need for more effective
encoding, he thought the Navajo language would be useful. Few people were familiar
with it, and its patterns were different from most known languages.

Johnston brought his idea to a lieutenant colonel at California’s Camp Elliott. Johnston
explained that he was fluent in Navajo and had many connections within the Navajo
community. At first, military officers were skeptical. Military intelligence had
successfully used Comanche and Choctaw languages in World War I, but only to a
limited degree.

One problem was that Nazi Germans were now infiltrating Native
American tribes in order to study their languages. (Some posed as art dealers and
anthropology students.) Also, a perceived hindrance was that many English terms –
particularly those used to express modern military ideas – did not have equivalents in the Native American languages.

But Johnston replied that the Navajo were among the few groups who had not yet been
infiltrated by the enemy; the desert tribe was geographically more isolated than others,
and fewer than thirty outsiders were believed to understand their language. Certainly they
had not had contact with the Japanese. Johnston also proposed that the code talkers could
give existing Navajo words new military meanings. For example, the Navajo term for
“hummingbird” could represent “fighter plane”, and the word for “potato” could mean
“hand grenade”.

To convince the military, Johnston assembled tribal members who worked at a Los
Angeles shipyard. The men’s test cases impressed the military, and a pilot project was
soon authorized. Thirty Navajo men commenced work for the US Marines.

Together with the military’s cryptographic officer, the recruits designed a code for
maritime battle. For times when English words had to be spelled out, they decided to use
letter substitutions from a Navajo noun or verb. This added an important layer of
complexity.

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Once the code was created, the first Navajo recruits practiced until they were ready for
deployment. At first this required memorization of about 200 terms; later this increased to
more than 400. The men worked efficiently and processed codes about ninety times faster
than machines! Most of these first recruits were transferred to Guadalcanal in the
Solomon Islands to begin translating; a few stayed behind to train the next wave of
recruits. They all became known as Code Talkers or Windtalkers.

The Navajo Windtalkers were highly effective. The secret program eventually employed
an estimated 400 translators (including a few Anglo-Americans). From 1942 to 1945,
these unique recruits facilitated every Marine assault in the Pacific Ocean. After the
Japanese surrender, the US kept the code secret. It stayed in use through the Korean and
Vietnam wars.

The Navajo Code Talkers were declassified until 1968. The Japanese then admitted that
although they broke codes of the US Army and Navy, they were confounded by the
Marines’ encrypted messages; the combination of English and Navajo, added to the
Native American language’s complex syntax and tonal qualities, proved baffling.
The Pentagon honored the code talkers in 1992, and in December of 2000, New Mexico’s
Senator Jeff Bingaman publicly awarded the code talkers and their families with medals
of honor.

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