World War II had no shortage of heroes, but the conflict likely would’ve ended on a completely different note for the United States without the contributions of the Navajo Code Talkers. At the onset of the war, the U.S. found itself vulnerable to Japanese intelligence specialists who used their English-speaking soldiers to intercept the messages issued by the U.S. military. Each time the military devised a code, Japanese intelligence experts deciphered it. As a result they not only learned which actions U.S. forces would take before they carried them out but gave the troops bogus missions to confuse them. To prevent the Japanese from intercepting subsequent messages, the U.S. military developed highly intricate codes that could take more than two hours to decrypt or encrypt. This was far from an efficient way to communicate. But World War I veteran Philip Johnston would change that by suggesting that the U.S. military develop a code based on the Navajo language.
A Complex Language
World War II did not mark the first time the U.S. military developed a code based on an indigenous language. In World War I, Choctaw speakers served as code talkers. But Philip Johnston, a missionary’s son who grew up on the Navajo reservation, knew that a code based on the Navajo language would be especially difficult to break. For one, the Navajo language was largely unwritten at the time and many words in the language have different meanings depending on context. Once Johnston demonstrated to the Marine Corps how effective a Navajo-based code would be in thwarting intelligence breaches, the Marines set out to sign up Navajos as radio operators.
The Navajo Code in Use
In 1942, 29 Navajos ranging in age from 15 to 35 collaborated to create the first U.S. military code based on their indigenous language. It started off with a vocabulary of about 200 but tripled in quantity by the time World War II ended. The Navajo Code Talkers could pass messages in as little as 20 seconds. According to the official Navajo Code Talkers website, indigenous words that sounded like military terms in English made up the code.
“The Navajo word for turtle meant ‘tank,’ and a dive-bomber was a ‘chicken hawk.’ To supplement those terms, words could be spelled out using Navajo terms assigned to individual letters of the alphabet—the selection of the Navajo term being based on the first letter of the Navajo word’s English meaning. For instance, ‘Wo-La-Chee’ means ‘ant,’ and would represent the letter ‘A.’”
U.S. Triumphs With Code
The code was so complex that not even native Navajo speakers comprehended it. “When a Navajo listens to us, he wonders what in the world we’re talking about,” Keith Little, the sole surviving code talker in 2011, explained to news station My Fox Phoenix. The code also proved unique because the Navajo soldiers weren’t allowed to write it down once they were on frontlines of the war. The soldiers functioned essentially as “living codes.” During the first two days of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the code talkers transmitted 800 messages with no mistakes. Their efforts played a key role in the U.S. emerging from the Battle of Iwo Jima as well as the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and Okinawa victoriously. “We saved a lot of lives…, I know that we did,” Little said.
Honoring the Code Talkers
The Navajo Code Talkers may have been World War II heroes, but the public didn’t realize it because the code created by the Navajos remained a top military secret for decades following the war. Finally in 1968, the military declassified the code, but many believed that the Navajos didn’t receive the honors befitting of war heroes. In April 2000, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico sought to change that when he introduced a bill authorizing the U.S. president to award gold and silver congressional medals to the Navajo Code Talkers. In December 2000, the bill went into effect.
“It has taken too long to properly recognize these soldiers, whose achievements have been obscured by twin veils of secrecy and time,” Bingaman said. “…I introduced this legislation – to salute these brave and innovative Native Americans, to acknowledge the great contribution they made to the Nation at a time of war, and to finally give them their rightful place in history.”
Code Talkers Legacy
The Navajo Code Talkers’ contributions to the U.S. military during World War II entered popular culture when the film “Windtalkers,” starring Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach, debuted in 2002. Although the movie received mixed reviews, it exposed a large swath of the public to World War II’s Native American heroes. The Navajo Code Talkers Foundation, an Arizona nonprofit, also functions to raise awareness about these skillful soldiers and celebrate Native American culture, history and heritage.