The word “warrior” can recall many images, from medieval knights fighting in great battles to mythical heroes. “Warrior” is an English word often used to describe Native American men. However, their traditional roles involved more than fighting enemies. They helped their tribes in times of difficulty and cared for the people, doing anything to ensure survival, including laying down their own lives. It was a great honor to be chosen.
In early 1942, World War II was not going well for the Allies. France had fallen to the Nazis. Britain was still staggering from the Blitz. Japanese forces had crippled the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, attacked the Philippines and Guam, and were seizing territory hand over fist in the south and central Pacific. German armies had advanced deep into the Soviet Union. Hitler’s submarines were wreaking havoc on convoys leaving the United States for Russian and English ports…
In wartime, secure communications are crucial, but for the U.S. armed forces, securing messages became a bewildering problem. Japanese cryptographers, many of them educated in the United States and fluent in standard and colloquial English, were amazingly adept at breaking codes. Enemy forces often knew about American battle plans, and no defense against Japanese code breaking had materialized, try as we might. “Military communications were made available to the enemy like sand sifting through a sieve,” an analyst said.
An unlikely answer came from an unlikely source. Philip Johnston, a civil engineer who lived in Los Angeles, was the child of missionaries who had raised their son on the Navajo Reservation, which stretches across New Mexico and Arizona. Born in Kansas in 1892, Johnston had grown up speaking Navajo. In that language, unique to reservation dwellers and rarely used elsewhere, inflection determines the word’s meaning. Depending on pronunciation, a Navajo word can have four distinct meanings. In 1942, there was no Navajo alphabet. The language did not exist in written form. At government boarding schools to which Indian children were sent, teachers and administrators often forbade their charges from speaking Navajo or any other Indian language, demanding that they speak only English.
At 50, Johnston, who had served in France with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, was too old to fight in World War II, but he still wanted to serve his country. Reading an article about military security, he had an idea: base a secret code on Navajo. This could be very helpful in maintaining communications secrecy. After viewing a demonstration of messages sent in the Navajo language and re-translated into English, the Marine Corps was so impressed that they recruited 29 Navajos in two weeks to develop a code within their language. After it was developed, a Code Talking school was established by the Marine Corps. The training was intense: not only did they complete basic training, they had extensive training in communications and memorizing the code. For them, however, memorizing was not difficult. That is a gift and a part of their heritage as they have no written language. Every memory, song, or story is passed down from father to son, mother to daughter.
More than 400 Navajos alone were eventually recruited as Code Talkers as the war progressed. Ultimately, at least 16 different tribes would be represented in the army, marines, and navy. In a broad sense, the Navajo and Hopi were assigned to service in the Pacific to fight the Japanese. The Comanches fought the Nazis in Europe and the Meskwakis fought them in North Africa.
Recruiters told volunteers only that they would be “specialists” serving at home and overseas. Officially, Marine recruits had to be between 16 and 35 years of age. Birth records were not usually kept on the reservation, so some underage volunteers lied about when they were born, as did some who were overage. Few volunteers had ever left the reservation. Many had never ridden on a bus or train. They viewed the chance to serve in the military as an opportunity for education, training, and world travel.
Despite everything that the American Indians had endured in the past, the warrior tradition–the tradition of protecting their people–called many of them to serve in the United States Military. More than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I–about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at that time. During World War II, when the total American Indian population was less than 350,000, an estimated 44,000 Native American men and women served.
The Navajos were assigned to devise a code in their language that would confuse and frustrate enemy listeners. Code words had to be short and easily learned and recalled. The men developed a two-part code. The first, a 26-letter phonetic alphabet using Navajo names for eighteen animals and other words for various letters: “zinc” (Z), “Ute” (U), “quiver” (Q), etc. The second part was a 211-word English vocabulary with Navajo synonyms: “Aircraft Carrier” (Bird Carrier), “Fighter Plane” (Hummingbird), etc. Conventional Marine Corps codes involved lengthy encoding and deciphering procedures using sophisticated electronic equipment. The Navajo code, relying on the sender’s and the receiver’s brains, mouths, and ears, was much faster. In training and in combat, code talkers proficiency erased any initial distrust.
Their incredible skill in jungle combat, stamina, ingenuity, scouting, and tracking made the code talkers virtually indispensable. White soldiers would occasionally mistake the Navajo for the enemy, nearly costing several code talkers their lives. Sometimes, soldiers “captured” and interrogated Navajo as they looked mildly like the Japanese, especially to untrained Western eyes. Some code-talkers always had to be accompanied by a fellow white soldier to ensure their safety from being mistaken for the enemy.
Code talkers served with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific and with Marine Raider and parachute units, earning lavish praise for their performance in the Solomons, the Marianas, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima. On Iwo Jima, a signal officer said, “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.”
The Code Talkers’ role in war required intelligence and bravery. They developed and memorized a special code. They endured some of the most dangerous battles and remained calm under fire. They served proudly, with honor and distinction. Their actions proved critical in several important campaigns, and they are credited with saving thousands of American and Allied lives. The Navajo code was never broken and perplexed the enemy to the bitter end. After the war, a former Japanese general acknowledged that Navajo transmission had befuddled Japan’s most highly skilled cryptographers.
Wilson, William R. Codemakers: History of the Navajo Code Talkers. American History Magazine. 1997.
National Museum of the American Indian. Native Words, Native Warriors. Smithsonian Institution. 2007.