The Navajo Code Talkers

Excerpts from Doris A. Paul, The Navajo Code Talkers (Pittsburgh, PA: Dorrance Publishing Co., Inc., 1973), 170 pages:

During World War II, Indians of many tribes spoke across enemy lines in Africa, Sicily and the South Pacific – Comanche, Creek, Choctaw, Menominee, Chippewa, and Hopi. But in each case the Indians were speaking in their own tongue – not in code.

Credit for the concept of the use of a code based on the Navajo language and the presentation of the idea to the Marines goes to a man named Philip Johnston, an engineer for the city of Los Angeles at the outbreak of the war. Mr. Johnston had spent the major part of his life on the reservation and spoke the language fluently. [p. 7]

Mr. Johnston says, “The code talkers presented a phenomenal feat of memory, and I don’t know to this day how they could react so quickly to those substitute words in Navajo in a fraction of a second. To arrive at this proficiency, they had to study long hours – day and night.” He reported that the drill continued over portable radios in the field day after day and “deft fingers trained in rapid legible printing recorded those messages.” Washington officials never ceased to be amazed at the dispatches that materialized from a “weird succession of guttural, nasal, tongue-twisting sounds.” [p. 45]

One code talker recently commented, “When we were recruited, we knew only that we were to be specialists of some kind, but did not know we would have anything to do with the setting up of the code. When we got to camp we thought we were in a penitentiary, after the free life on the reservation. We had to wear a shabby arrangement of dungarees. Training was grueling out in the hot sun in San Diego. [p.15]

Navajo Code Talkers

One of the code-talker recruits relates one of his experiences at boot camp that completely changed his whole life in service. At one time during training, he felt he could not stand the stress any longer and finally “went over the hill.” He started back to the reservation and had been absent from camp three days when he decided he had made a grave mistake. He turned back to “face the music.” Not far from camp, a busload of WAVEs stopped and picked him up. When they asked him when he had to be back in camp, the told them there was really no hurry. So he spent his last day of freedom with a busload of good-looking girls. The bus rolled up to the gate and was given the O.K. sign to enter. The Navajo flashed his identification and with no questions asked, he rolled right into camp with the WAVEs.

Eventually, of course, he was brought up before the officers who demanded to know where he had been, how he had gotten back into camp, etc. He admitted that he had gone AWOL and told the truth as to how he got back in. They wouldn’t believe him and asked him to come up with a better story than this – this one they couldn’t believe. After insisting that he had told them God’s truth, he realized that they would never believe him. So he fabricated the story that he had watched the guards and when they weren’t looking, he had sneaked in under the fence. This the officers believed. [pp. 17-18]

A white Marine relates a dramatic story concerning the service rendered by the code talkers. It was on Saipan where his battalion occupied a position on the division’s extreme left. One night the enemy retreated to a new line several hundred yards to the rear, and a few hours later, the Marines advanced to the old positions previously held by the Japanese, when a salvo exploded nearby. They radioed headquarters, reminding them that Americans now held this position, but another salvo came later. It was then that they “knew the score.” Headquarters did not believe them. And why should they? The Japanese had imitated American broadcasts many times before. Again they were showered with mud from a salvo that came even closer. And they heard the question from headquarters: “Do you have a Navajo?” The Marine says he will never forget the message that was sent by the single Navajo in the battalion, although he couldn’t understand a word of it. A few minutes later he and his comrades saw a cloud of smoke rising from the Japanese positions. They had been saved from being “clobbered” by their own artillery – by that Navajo message. [p.66]

Major Howard M. Conner, in commenting on the gallantry of the code talkers, said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima!” [p. 73].

Excerpt from “Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet,” Naval History & Heritage Command, at http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq61-2.htm (retrieved: 10 March 2014).

At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” Connor had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error.

The Japanese, who were skilled code breakers, remained baffled by the Navajo language. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps, they never cracked the code used by the Marines. The Navajo code talkers even stymied a Navajo soldier taken prisoner at Bataan. (About 20 Navajos served in the U.S. Army in the Philippines.) The Navajo soldier, forced to listen to the jumbled words of talker transmissions, said to a code talker after the war, “I never figured out what you guys who got me into all that trouble were saying.”

In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. As of 1945, about 540 Navajos served as Marines. From 375 to 420 of those trained as code talkers; the rest served in other capacities.

See also

Navajo Code Talkers at Youtube.com (retrieved: 10 March 2014).


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