Unsung Heroes of World War 2: The Navajo Code Talkers


The Navajo Indians are a group of Indians that live in Arizona and New Mexico today. They came to this area sometime before 1400. The Navajo term originated when the Pueblo Indians applied it to an area of land in the Southwest and the Spanish started calling the Indians that name. The Navajos had highly developed art and rituals. Like most other Indians they did not use written words but they had developed their own language for communication and to pass their myths in songs and poetry. The quote below reflects on the intricacy and uniqueness of their language.

“Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. One estimate indicates that less than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language at the outbreak of World War II”(Durret 254).

Early relations between Anglo-American settlers of New Mexico were relatively peaceful, but the peace began to disintegrate following the killing of a respected Navajo leader, Narbona in 1849. Overtime tensions between Navajo Indians and US government kept mounting. In 1861 a fight broke out between US Troops headed by Kit Carson and the Navajo. From this time on, the United States government was on Indian removal campaign. The Navajo resisted persecution and were finally acknowledged sovereignty in the historic Treaty of 1868. They Navajo returned to their land and The U.S. government issued them rations and sheep and within a few years the Navajo had multiplied the numbers of their livestock and began to prosper once again. Then, during World War II, the U.S. government needed the Navajos' help and though they had suffered greatly from this same government, Navajos proudly answered the call to duty.

When the Navajo reservation heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor they were eager to fight. Men and young boys ran out with their whatever they could find rifles, axes, and knives. Some enlisted in the marines. But the intelligent of the Navajo would also have a place not only in the war but also in history.

The code used by US during World War II to communicate from battalion to battalion or ship-to-ship was frequently broken by the enemy. As a result not only was the element of surprise being lost, but the enemy was able to reposition and get the upper hand.
Philip Johnston , The son of a Protestant missionary, had spent much of his childhood on the Navajo reservation. He grew up with Navajo children, learning their language and their customs. Then one day, Johnston was reading the newspaper when he noticed a story about an armored division in Louisiana that was attempting to come up with a way to code military communications using Native American personnel. This story sparked an idea. The next day, Johnston headed to Camp Elliot and presented his idea for a code to Major General Clayton B. Vogel. A test was carried out with 4 Navajos. “…staged tests under simulated combat conditions, demonstrating that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job”(Doris 35). The demonstration was a success and Major General Vogel sent a letter to the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps recommending that they enlist 200 Navajos for this assignment. In response to the request, they were only given permission to begin a "pilot project" with 30 Navajos.

Eventually only 29 arrived at the military base in California. What happened to the last code talker is still a mystery. Many of these young Navajos had never been off the reservation, making their transition to military life even more difficult. Yet they persevered, and embarked on a journey to create a code that would be short, concise, and most of all unbreakable…

Once the code was created, the Navajo recruits were tested and re-tested. There could be no mistakes in any of the translations. One mistranslated word could lead to the death of thousands. Once the first 29 were trained, two remained behind to become instructors for future Navajo code talkers and the other 27 were sent to Guadalcanal to be the first to use the new code in combat situation. When the Navajo code was first introduced, military leaders in the field were skeptical. Many of the first recruits had to prove the code’s worth. However, after just a few experiences, most commanders were grateful for the speed and accuracy in which messages could be communicated and the resulting advantage they had in the battle. Navajo Code Talkers successfully demonstrated the success of their code.

Before the code talkers appeared on the World War II scene, the US was doing poorly in its fight against the Japanese in the Asia Pacific Theater. “The Japanese had a group of well trained English soldiers that were used to intercept US communications. Sometimes they even ended up sending their own fake messages to sabotage US plans”(Aaseng 178). “The Japanese could intercept US communications 90% of the time making it very hard to implement battle plans with an element of surprise”(Aaseng 35). Many lives were lost and supplies stolen due to it. 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 stumped a Navajo soldier taken prisoner at Bataan. 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."

Praise for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war. It is said that without the Navajo participation, the marines would never have taken Iwo Jima because during the first 48 hours of the battle, while the marines were establishing a beachhead, the code talkers sent and received more than 800 messages without error, message that the Japanese heard but could not interpret. 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.

US eventually won World War II. By the end of World War II there were 540 Navajo Marines and 420 were trained as code talkers. From 1942 to 1945, Navajo code talkers participated in numerous battles in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, and Tarawa. They not only worked in communications but also as regular soldiers, facing the same horrors of war as other soldiers(See Appendix A). But the impressive part of their achievement was the code that was carefully created and fluently spoken by the Navajo Code Talkers.

The code itself consisted of 411 terms, which they had to memorize. The Code used by the Navajo Code Talkers created messages by first translating Navajo words into English, then using the first letter of each English word to decipher the meaning. Because different Navajo words might be translated into different English words for the same letter, the code was especially difficult to decipher. Some military terms that had no equivalent in Navajo were assigned their own code word. The word America, for example, was "Ne-he-mah" (Our mother). Submarine became "besh-lo" (iron fish). The list was not printed for fear that it could somehow end up in enemy hands if a code talker were captured or killed. “He knew the complexity was so great: some of the native Navajos could not even decipher the code”(Durret 138).

Throughout their careers, the Navajos acted as a team sending and receiving messages. The feats they accomplished as a team were extraordinary.

“It is almost certain that America would not have been able to win the war without the Navajo Code Talkers, and it is hard to estimate the true number of American lives that they saved. It is believed that their code is the only truly unbreakable code in the history of warfare”(Bixler 250).

The Navajo Code Talkers consequently revolutionized military coded communication and positively impacted modern warfare to this day. American Military leadership realized importance of secure communication capability in war once Code Talkers were introduced. With the Code Talker system, the success rate increased and the Army fatality rate decreased. The Navajos contributed to the Americans victory in 1945 and were again employed in Korean and Vietnam wars.. Since then much has changed in terms of warfare in terms of strategy, equipment, technology and training. However effective and coded communication is still vital to success..

Navajo remained potentially valuable as code even after the war. For that reason, the code talkers, whose skill and courage saved both American lives and military engagements, only recently earned recognition from the Government and the public.

At the end of their service, President Bill Clinton who showed his recognition for them in his “Address to the People of the Navajo Nation.”

“All Americans should know of the exploits of the young Navajo men, some as young as 15, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in World War II……It had the power to change the course of history……Well, there are many American military commanders from that conflict who will tell you that the US might never have taken Iwo Jima, or won countless other battles in the Pacific it if weren’t for the bravery, the sacrifice and the unbreakability of the code of the Navajo Code Talkers”(Clinton 1-4).

Sometimes individuals make lasting impression in history because they are wealthy, hold position of power such as President, King or because they are exceptionally bright and make a ground-breaking discovery. History has many examples of these situations. It is rare to find ordinary individuals having a lasting impact on society. Navajo Code talkers were in this category. The code talkers applied Native language for coded, secretive, communication in the 20th century wars..They made their mark simply because they believed in their country and worked as a team even under pressure and in wartime situations. The Navajo Code Talkers were unique in that their fame came from their respectable deeds not from what objects they possessed or what their position was in society. Also they helped their country in spite of the persecution they received. “Even though they did not have the right to vote, they wanted to serve their country”(Groiler 7). In fact, the code was so prevailing that it was classified and used in the Korean and Vietnam wars until 1968. Now, when officials create battle plans they always take communication into consideration. In fact, sometimes plans are created based on communication. In other words strategy in winning a war now comprises of not just men, their training or weapons, but sometimes it is about communication.

Works Cited

Aaseng, Nathan. Navajo Code Talkers. 1992. Canada: Thomas Allen &Son Canada, 1992.
Clinton, Bill. “Address to the People of the Navajo Nation.” American History Online. Facts On File News Services. 3 Nov. 2008 .

Durret, Deanne. The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers. Unsung Heroes of World War 2. USA: Facts on File, 1998.

Bixler, M T. The Story of Navajo Code Talkers of World War 2. 1992. Winds of Freedom. USA: Two Bytes Publishing Company, 1992.

Annnotated Bibliography

Primary Sources
Clinton, Bill. “Address to the People of the Navajo Nation.” American History Online. Facts On File News Services. 3 Nov. 2008 .

The President interacted with code talkers before and after their service. This source explained the feelings of the code talkers and how they became more respected.
Iverson, Peter. “For Our Navajo People”:Dine Letters, Speeches and Petitions 1900 – 1960. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2002.

This book gave a good background info on the Navajos through its previous history with the US.

Macdonald, Peter, and Ted Schwarz. Warriors Navajo Code Talkers. Flagstaff: Northland Publishing Company, 1990.

The interviewed code talker in this book stated facts and first –hand details that helped in knowing what the job really consisted of.

“Military Life: The Navy, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the War in the Pacific.” American History Online. Facts On File News Services. 3 Nov. 2008 .
The soldiers in this recounted their experiences with the code talkers. They inform me of a command officer’s perspective and how well the code actually worked.

Secondary Sources
Aaseng, Nathan. Navajo Code Talkers. 1992. Canada: Thomas Allen &Son Canada, 1992.
This book helped me fully complete my paper by outlining the outcome of the Navajo code talkers.

Bixler, M T. The Story of Navajo Code Talkers of World War 2. 1992. Winds of Freedom. USA: Two Bytes Publishing Company, 1992.

This book stated the facts clearly and in an organized fashioned telling the reader the events in specific chronological order.

“Groiler. Code Talkers.” Parkland High School Lib. 3 Nov. 2008 .
This page consisted of pictures. I used it to get a better understanding of the job.
Durret, Deanne. The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers. Unsung Heroes of World War 2. USA: Facts on File, 1998.

This source greatly explained livestock reduction which was one of many events in which the government tricked the Navajos. I used this source to support the thesis in the paper.

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