When the United States fought World War II, they ran the constant risk of information being intercepted over radio waves. Strong codes were crucial in communicating military messages, and the Japanese proved to be excellent decoders. Eventually, with the help of Navajo people, the government developed an effective code that helped the US defeat the Japanese. Military officers later observed, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
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.
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 Wind-talkers.
The Navajo Wind-talkers 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.