As 1942 dawned, World War II was not going well for America and her Allies. Japanese carrier-borne bombers and fighters had crippled the U.S. Navy’s proud Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; attacked American bases in the Philippines and on Guam; and were intent on seizing other island bases in the south and central Pacific. In Europe, France had fallen to Germany’s blitzkrieg, and stalwart Britain was still staggering from the Nazis’ relentless nighttime bombing during the previous year.
Half a world away, two great British ships — the battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse — and members of their crews lay at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Malaya, unfortunate victims of Japanese bombing attacks on December 10, 1941. Meanwhile, Germany’s armies continued to advance methodically into the Soviet Union, while Hitler’s submarines wreaked havoc on supply convoys outbound to Russian ports from the United States.
For the U.S. Armed Forces, communications, which had always been a complex issue, had now become a bewildering problem. Japanese cryptographers were proving themselves amazingly adept at breaking top secret military codes almost as rapidly as newer, more complicated procedures could be devised. Many of the Japanese code breakers had been educated in the United States where they had learned to speak English and had become familiar with American colloquialisms, including slang terms and profanity. As a result, American battle plans became known to the enemy almost immediately, often before they had become operational, and there appeared to be no immediate workable solution. The result was an appalling loss of American lives. One war analyst commented, ‘Military communications were made available to the enemy like sand sifting through a sieve.’ Some months before, Philip Johnston, a middle-aged civil engineer who lived in Los Angeles, read a newspaper article on military security. During World War I, he had served with U.S. forces in France, and although too old to fight in World War II, Johnston wanted to aid the current war effort in some way. From the age of four, he had lived on the Navajo Indian Reservation, where his parents were Protestant missionaries, and had consequently grown up speaking the Navajo tongue with his playmates. Now, as he read, the concept of a secret military code based on the Navajo language flashed across his mind.
In February 1942, after formulating his idea, Johnston traveled south to Camp Elliott near San Diego, where he tried to convince Lieutenant Colonel James E. Jones, the Marines’ Signal Corps Communications Officer, that a code based on the Navajo language could not be broken by the enemy. Jones, after listening intently to Johnston’s idea, responded: ‘In all the history of warfare, that has never been done. No code, no cipher is completely secure from enemy interception. We change our codes frequently for this reason.’ But Johnston’s graphic presentation proved so convincing that the two men agreed to set up a test.
Johnston’s confidence in his theory lay in the fact that the Navajo language includes a number of words that, when spoken with varying inflections, may have as many as four totally different meanings. Navajo verb forms are especially complex. To most listeners, the language is virtually incomprehensible and has been variously likened to the rumble of a moving freight train, the gurgling noises of a partially blocked sink drain, or, jokingly, the resonant thunder of an old-fashioned commode being flushed. As a result, use of the Navajo tongue was confined almost entirely to the reservation; few non-Navajos spoke or understood it. And it was a ‘hidden language,’ there not yet being an alphabet or written form for others to study.
Returning to Los Angeles, Johnston spent nearly two weeks seeking bilingual Navajos from among that city’s population. On February 28, 1942, he returned to Camp Elliott with four Indians in order to prove their linguistic capability before a group of skeptical Marine staff officers. Sent in pairs to separate rooms, the first two Navajos were given a typical military field order to transmit in their own language to the others several doors away. When retranslated back into English, the message received by the second pair proved to be an accurate copy of the order as it was given. The Marines were amazed at the speed and accuracy of the interpretation, and the presentation was pronounced a complete success.
Major General Clayton Vogel, Camp Elliott’s commanding officer, composed an urgent letter — supported by another from Johnston — describing the demonstration to the Marine Corps commandant in Washington, D.C., and urging the immediate recruitment of two hundred young, well-educated Navajos to serve as Marine communications specialists. After an agonizing delay, General Vogel was authorized by Washington to recruit just thirty Navajos for training in a trial project. The commandant of the Marine Corps, unwilling to risk turning over such a vital element of the war effort to a civilian and two hundred Navajo Indians, reasoned that if a program using the thirty men did not work out, the Marines would not have expended too much time and effort.
By mid-April, Marine recruiting personnel appeared on the Navajo Reservation. They proceeded to enlist thirty volunteers from agency schools at Fort Wingate and Shiprock, New Mexico, and Fort Defiance, Arizona. In addition to being fluent in both the Navajo tongue and English, each enlistee had to be physically fit in order to serve as a messenger in combat. The Navajos were told only that they would be’specialists’ and would serve both in the United States and overseas. Some members of the group were underage, but as birth records were not usually kept on the reservation, it was easy for a recruit to lie or be mistaken about his age. Carl Gorman, a 36-year-old Navajo from Fort Defiance, was too old to be considered by the Marines, so he lied about his age in order to be accepted.
For almost all of the Navajos, travel was a brand new experience. Some had never been off the reservation, and many had never ridden on a bus or train. The majority of them had never seen an ocean and did not realize that they would soon be a part of the ferocious war being fought in the middle of the Pacific. Several of the recruits’ families insisted that before leaving, their sons participate in a religious ceremony to pray for the young men’s safe return.
The group of Navajos who reported for basic training at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot had never experienced any sort of military discipline, and several found it difficult to cope with their new lifestyle. Although now officially designated the 382nd Platoon, U.S. Marine Corps, at boot camp, the group was referred to as ‘The Navajo School.’
Following their basic training, the Navajo Marines were moved to Camp Pendleton at Oceanside, California, where their new officers were quick to realize that these young men were, in some ways, different from those with whom they were used to dealing. But the Navajos learned to march in cadence, obey orders, and keep their quarters scrupulously clean. On one occasion, during a dress parade on a particularly hot day, several non-Indian Marines passed out from the heat, while all of the Navajos, who hailed from the hot climate of the Southwest, remained erect in formation and stood at attention during the personal inspection that followed.
One writer for the Marine Corps Chevron reported that ‘At present they’re a typical Marine outfit of budding specialists. They gripe about the things that all Marines gripe about — liberty, chow and the San Diego weather.’ In short, the Navajos were rapidly shaping up into excellent Leathernecks.
At Camp Pendleton, the Navajos, in addition to their other duties, were required to devise a new Marine Corps military code which, when transmitted in their own language, would completely baffle their Japanese enemies. The code’s words had to be short, easy to learn, and quick to recall. After working long and hard on the project, the men devised a two-part code. The first part, a 26-letter phonetic alphabet, used Navajo names for 18 animals or birds, plus the words ice for I, nut for N, quiver for Q, Ute for U, victor for V, cross for X, yucca for Y, and zinc for Z. The second part consisted of a 211-word English vocabulary and the Navajo equivalents. This code, when compared with conventional Marine Corps codes, offered considerable savings in time, since the latter involved lengthy encoding and deciphering procedures by Signal Corps cryptographic personnel using sophisticated electronic equipment.
Exactly how the Navajos did their job remained a mystery to many Marine Corps staff officers. However, their proficiency, both under training conditions and later in actual combat, proved that the Navajos were completely reliable and erased the initial distrust felt by some Marine officers.
Several of the Navajos remained in California as instructors; two became recruiters; and one did not complete the course. The remainder of the original contingent reported for combat duty in August 1942 to Major General Alexander Vandegrift’s First Marine Division on Guadalcanal. The general became so impressed by the code talkers’ performance that he requisitioned Washington for 83 additional Navajos to be assigned to his division alone. By the time the Guadalcanal campaign ended that December, General Vandegrift had no doubt about the Navajos’ dependability.
Meanwhile, a second, much larger contingent of Navajos had been recruited and sent to boot camp in San Diego. Following completion of their basic training, the men were assigned to the top-secret code-talker program at Camp Pendleton. By August 1943, nearly two hundred young Navajos had been trained at the camp. The staff sergeant in charge of the code-talker program there was Philip Johnston, who, although overage for duty with the Marines, had volunteered his services.
In jungle combat in the Pacific, the Navajos’ innate strength, ingenuity, scouting and tracking ability, habitual Spartan lifestyle, and utter disregard for hardships stood them in remarkably good stead. At first utilized usually only at the company-battalion level, the Navajos became virtually indispensable as their capability and reliability were recognized.
Frequently, and especially when a Marine regiment was fighting alongside an Army unit, the Navajos’ physical resemblance to the Japanese led to confusion that resulted in several Navajos almost becoming casualties of ‘friendly fire’ by their fellow-Americans. Many Navajos actually were captured and taken for interrogation. One such Navajo, William McCabe, was looking for something to eat while waiting on a Guadalcanal beach for his transport ship. ‘I got lost among the big chow dump,’ he recalled, ‘All of a sudden I heard somebody say, `Halt,’ and I kept walking. `Hey, you! Halt, or I’m gonna shoot!’. . . . [T]here was a big rifle all cocked and ready to shoot. I’m just from my outfit, I was coming here to get something to eat. And he said, `I think you’re a Jap. Just come with me.” After that incident, McCabe was accompanied by a non-Navajo at all times.
On the eve of the First Marine Division’s departure for the island of Okinawa, which was expected to be the bloodiest landing of the Pacific War thus far, the Navajos performed a sacred ceremonial dance that invoked their deities’ blessings and protection for themselves and their fellow Americans. They prayed that their enemies’ resistance might prove weak and ineffectual. Some of their non-Indian buddies, standing on the sidelines, scoffed at the whole idea. When Ernie Pyle, the famed Scripps-Howard war correspondent, reported the story afterward, he noted that the landings on Okinawa beach had indeed proved much easier than had been anticipated and noted that several of the Navajos were quick to point this out to the skeptics in their units.
Farther inland, however, Japanese resistance stiffened, almost slowing the American advance to a halt. As might be expected, a Navajo was asked by another Marine with whom he shared a foxhole what he thought of his prayers now. ‘This,’ the Navajo replied, ‘is completely different. We only prayed for help during the landings.’
Eventually, Navajo code talkers served with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific and with Marine Raider and parachute units as well. Praise for their work became lavish and virtually endless as they participated in major Marine assaults on the Solomons, the Marianas, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima.
Commenting on the Marines’ Iwo Jima landing, Major Howard Conner, the Fifth Marine Division’s Signal Officer, said that ‘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.’
On an August evening in 1945, the Navajos were, quite naturally, among the first to receive the news that everyone had been waiting to hear. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki three days later, Emperor Hirohito had urged the Japanese nation to ‘endure the unendurable’ of surrender. The war was over.
In all, 421 Navajos had completed wartime training at Camp Pendleton’s code talker school, and most had been assigned to combat units overseas. Following Japan’s formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, several code talkers volunteered for duty with U.S. occupation forces in Japan. Others were sent to China for duty with American Marines there. One code talker, Willson Price, remained in the Marine Corps for thirty years, finally retiring in 1972.
Several months elapsed before the first Navajos returned from the Pacific to their homes. For most of the returning heroes, their homecoming initiated a round of family reunions and purification rites, traditional dances, and curing ceremonies, all coupled with their mothers’ thankful prayers for their sons’ return, safe in both body and mind. These ages-old Navajo religious rites had originally been adopted to protect returnees from any harmful or toxic influences they might have encountered or duties they had been forced to perform while away from the reservation. But there was surprisingly little evidence of serious psychological problems or combat fatigue among the returning Navajo veterans.
For many of them, however, returning to reservation life proved difficult after their years away. They missed the excitement, the challenges, and especially the privileges they had grown accustomed to in the service. Some of the men rejoined the same Bureau of Indian Affairs’ high school classes from which they had originally been recruited. Others enrolled in various colleges or universities under the G.I. Bill.
For Teddy Draper, Sr., on occupational duty in Japan, there was no such immediate problem. During his off-duty hours, he learned to speak Japanese so well that he eventually served as an interpreter. He later commented: ‘When I was going to boarding school [before the war], the U.S. government told us not to speak Navajo, but during the war, they wanted us to speak it!’ He remembered thinking that ‘if I can get back to the reservation safely, I want to become a Navajo language teacher and educate young Navajos.’ His wartime training had given him new insight into modern teaching methods, which he later used to teach other Navajos at home.
But for most of the men who wished to marry and raise families, there were severe problems. Jobs were scarce; in fact, there were none to be had on the reservation. Many banks refused to make G.I. loans even to honorably discharged veterans because Navajo families held their reservation land parcels in trust and had no proof of title. The men felt, with considerable justification, that it was a shameful way for their government to treat them. But, as one veteran code talker remarked, ‘We’ve faced difficult situations before, and tough trails have never defeated us! Somehow the Navajos survived.’
Almost a quarter of a century elapsed before the Fourth Marine Division honored its Navajo code talkers at its June 1969 annual reunion in Chicago. An attractive medallion, struck by the Franklin Mint in commemoration of their services, was presented to each of the group of twenty veteran code talkers who had flown to Chicago for the occasion. To show its appreciation, the division entertained the men in sumptuous style, and the Navajos, many dressed in their best tribal regalia, marched with the Fourth Marines down Michigan Avenue.
Today, a few veteran code talkers still take part in holiday parades, though some must now ride in open convertibles. Several code talkers have held the Navajo Nation’s top executive positions, both as chairman and vice-chairman, while others served on its Tribal Council. Fittingly enough, the men also have their own fraternity — the Navajo Code Talkers’ Association — which meets regularly at Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation’s capital.
In December 1971, President Richard M. Nixon presented the Navajo code talkers with a certificate of appreciation from the nation, thanking them for their ‘patriotism, resourcefulness, and courage.’ Those brave veterans had given the Marine Corps its only unbreakable means of battlefield communication, saving thousands of American lives in the process.
A Japanese general admitted after World War II that the most highly skilled Japanese cryptographers had not been able to decipher the Marines’ messages. After being informed that it was a code based on a Native American language, he said: ‘Thank you, that is a puzzle I thought would never be solved.’
Click here to read an interview with Code Talker Chester Nez.
This article was written by William R. Wilsont and originally published in the February 1997 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!