American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Code Talkers, Navajo

During World War II, Navajo soldiers created an unbreakable code that was based on their Native language, and more than 400 Navajos served in the U.S. Marine Corps as radio operators. Working in pairs as transmitter and receiver, they frustrated the repeated attempts of Japanese cryptographers and were credited with helping to shorten the war and saving thousands of lives. They used Navajo words adapted for war, like "hummingbird" for fighter plane, "eggs" for bombs, and "rabbit trail" for road. At the battle of Iwo Jima, the Navajo code talkers handled more than 800 messages in forty-eight hours.

Following the crippling attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the American armed forces continued to suffer setbacks at the hands of the Japanese. One of their biggest problems was communication. Many of the Japanese code breakers had been educated in the United States and were familiar with American slang and idioms. They were thus able to break any military code the Americans created.

Philip Johnston, a middle-aged civil engineer living in Los Angeles, read about the problem the military was having and suggested an unusual solution. Johnston, the child of missionaries, had grown up on the Navajo reservation and spoke the language fluently. At the early age of nine, he had served as the interpreter for President Theodore Roosevelt during a meeting with Navajo elders (Paul, 1973, 8). He understood the complexity of the Navajo language and saw its possible use.

While other Native languages, like Choctaw and Comanche, had been used for battlefield communication, there had been problems with their inadequacy in describing modern military terms. Johnston's proposal was to use the Navajo language to create a secret military code. The Navajo language had many advantages as a code. Few outside the Navajo reservation spoke or understood it. There was no written form for others to study, and a slight variation in inflection could radically change the meaning of a word. In short, to outsiders it was unintelligible.

Johnston convinced Lieutenant Colonel James E. Jones, the Marines Signal Corps Communications Officer, that his idea was worth a try, and together they set up a test. Two teams of Navajos were sent to separate rooms and given a typical field order to transmit, in their own language, to their companions several rooms away. When translated back into English, the message received proved to be an accurate copy of the original field order. The Marines were amazed at the speed and accuracy, and the test was pronounced a rousing success.

Johnston initially proposed to recruit 200 Navajos. The Marines were more cautious. They suggested recruiting thirty. That way, if things didn't work out, they weren't out that much time and money (Wilson, 1997, 7). Eventually twenty-nine Navajos were selected and sent to San Diego for basic training. They were told they would be "specialists" and were officially designated as the 382nd Platoon, U.S. Marine Corps. Following their basic training, the Navajo Marines were moved to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California.

In addition to their regular duties, the Navajo soldiers began to create a new military code. The code's words had to be short, easy to learn, and easy to remember. The men devised a two-part code. The first part was a twenty-six-letter alphabet that used the Navajo names for animals and birds, plus a few other words for unusual letters like "q," "x," and "z." The second part was a 211-word English vocabulary and their Navajo equivalents like "iron fish" for submarine and "buzzard" for bomber.

In August 1942, the first group of Navajos was sent to join the First Marine Division at Guadalcanal. Major General Alexander Vandegrift was so impressed with their performance that he immediately requested eighty-three more Navajos be assigned to his division. By August of 1943, nearly 200 Navajos had gone through the code talker program. The staff sergeant in charge was Philip Johnston, who had originated the idea.

The code talkers soon won a reputation for bravery and the ability to do their job under the worst of conditions. One of the code talkers recalled a combat experience: 

One night we held them [the Japanese] down. If you so much as held up your head six inches you were gone, the fire was so intense. And then in the wee hours, with no relief on our side or theirs, there was a dead standstill. Anything—any sound from anywhere—called for fire. If there was any movement—the breaking of a little twig—maybe there would be a hundred shots there. You just sat or lay there, gun cocked. It must have gotten so that this one Japanese couldn't take it anymore. He got up and yelled and screamed at the top of his voice and dashed over to our trench, swinging a long samurai sword. I imagine he was shot from 25 to 40 times before he fell.

There was a buddy with me in the trench. For four days we had no relief . . . hardly anything to eat; but we had to stay on the line. I had a cord tied around my wrist and to my buddy's hand. If I pulled the string and he pulled back there in the dark, I knew he was still alive. But that Japanese cut him across the throat with that long sword. He was still gasping through his windpipe. When he exhaled, blood gushed. And the sound of him trying to breathe was horrible. He died without help, of course. When the Jap struck, warm blood spattered all over my hand that was handling the microphone. I was calling [in code] for help. They tell me that in spite of what happened, every syllable of my message came through (Paul, 1973, 2).

The code talkers served with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific. They participated in major Marine assaults on the Solomons, the Marianas, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima. Major Howard Connor, the Fifth Marine Division's Signal Officer, said that "The entire operation was directed by Navajo code. . . . During the two days that followed the initial landings I had six Navajo radio nets working around the clock. . . . They sent and received over 800 messages without an error. Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima" (Wilson, 1997, 20).

The code talkers were among the first to hear the Japanese had surrendered and the war was over. They helped to spread the word to their fellow Marines. By the end of the war, more than 400 Navajos had completed training at Camp Pendleton, and most had been placed with combat units overseas. After the war, they returned to anonymous lives on the reservation. They had a hard time obtaining the few jobs that existed, in part because of the secrecy of their war mission. When asked by prospective employers about their experience in the Marine Corps, they couldn't tell them. They were honored by their own people, but their story was virtually unknown to most Americans.

The exemplary service of the Navajo code talkers did help to earn Native Americans some basic rights. Native Americans had been granted citizenship in 1924, but in states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, they were still not permitted to vote. In response to a 1944 letter from a Navajo soldier, James M. Stewart, Superintendent of the Navajo Indian Service, wrote, "While you are fighting on the battlefront, a fight must be waged here on the home front to obtain for you the right accorded to all free peoples." In 1948, New Mexico and Arizona gave Native Americans the right to vote. Utah followed in 1953 (Newmiller, 2005, 7).

The Navajo code was not declassified until 1968 and a year later, the Navajo code talkers were officially honored at a Marine convention in Chicago. A special medallion was struck for all members of this unique unit. There is now a Code Talkers Association that holds regular meetings on the Navajo Reservation in Window Rock, Arizona. In 2002, a hit movie called Wind Talkers, starring Nicolas Cage, brought the story of the Navajo code talkers to the big screen. While perpetuating some myths, it finally brought these warriors the recognition their meritorious service had earned (Miller, 2002, 3).

Hugh Reilly


Further Reading
Jevec, Adam, and Lee Ann Potter. 2001. "The Navajo Code Talkers: A Secret World War II Memorandum." Social Education 65, no. 5: 262–269.; Miller, Samantha, and Inez Russell. 2002, "The Word Warriors." People 57, no. 23: 111–112.; Newmiller, William. 2005. "The Navajo Code Talkers and Their Photographer." War Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities 17, nos. 1–2: 6–11.; Nichols, Judy. 1995. "Navajo 'Code Talkers' Were Vital Link in Pacific War." Christian Science Monitor 87, no. 137: 9; Papich, Bill. 2000. "Cheeseburgers and Code Talkers." American Heritage 51, no. 8: 11–12.; Paul, Doris A. 1973. The Navajo Code Talkers. Philadelphia, PA: Dorrance & Company.; Wilson, William R. 1997. "Code Talkers." American History 31, no. 6: 16–22.
 

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