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Navajos in a U.S. Marine artillery regiment relay orders over a field radio in their native tongue.

Codemakers: History of the Navajo Code Talkers

By William R. Wilson
February 1997 • American History Magazine

Training Day: Navajos from the 1st Marine Division were pivotal to the war effort in the Pacific Theater. (U.S. Marine Corps)

In early 1942, World War II was not going well for the Allies. France had fallen. 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 in the south and central Pacific in assaults that included sinking British battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse off Malaya. Germany armies had advance deep into the Soviet Union. Hitler’s submarines were wreaking havoc on convoys leaving the United States for Russian ports. 

In wartime, secure communications are crucial, but for the U.S. armed forces, securing messages become 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 in advance, and no defense against Japanese codebreaking had materialized. “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, Johnson had grown up speaking Navajo. In that language, unique to reservation dwellers and rarely used elsewhere, inflection determines a word’s meaning. Depending on pronunciation, a Navajo word can have four distinct meanings. Navajo verb forms are especially complex. Outsiders generally find the language incomprehensible and have likened hearing it spoken to listening to the rumble of a freight train, the gurgling of a partially blocked drain, and the flushing of an old-fashioned commode. 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 to speak Navajo or any other Indian language, demanding that they speak only English. 

At 50, Johnson, 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. Reading an article about military security, he had an idea: base a secret code on Navajo. He thought through his concept and in February 1942 visited U.S. Marine Corps Camp Elliott near San Diego. At a meeting with Signal Corp Communications Officer Lieutenant Colonel James E. Jones, Johnston described how a code based on Navajo would thwart enemy codebreakers. Jones was skeptical but Johnston persuaded him to test the premise. 

Back in Los Angeles, Johnston recruited four bilingual Navajos. He and they traveled on February 28 to Camp Elliott for a demonstration before Marine staff officers. Two Navajos were given a typical military field order and assigned to a room from which they were to transmit the message in Navajo to their companions several rooms away. Retranslated into English, the Navajo message accurately recapitulated the order as given, amazing the Marine observers. 

Impressed, Camp Elliott commander Major General Clayton Vogel asked Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, DC, to authorize the immediate recruitment of 200 young, well-educated Navajos as Marine communications specialists. Headquarters authorized 30, reasoning that to be enough to prove Johnston’s theory.  

Off to Battle: Many of the Navajos recruited for the program had never left their reservations in the American Southwest, but soon found themselves headed across the Pacific Ocean to fight a war. (U.S. Marine Corps)

By April, Marine personnel were on the Navajo Reservation recruiting volunteers from Indian agency schools at Fort Wingate and Shiprock, New Mexico, and Fort Defiance, Arizona. Besides fluency in Navajo and English, candidates had to demonstrate that they were physically fit to serve as messengers in combat. 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; some underage volunteers lied about when they were born, as did 36-year-old Fort Defiance resident Carl Gorman. Few volunteers had ever left the reservation. Many had never ridden on a bus or train. Several recruits’ families insisted that their sons participate in a religious ceremony to pray for a safe return before departing for basic training at San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Officially the 382nd Platoon, U.S. Marine Corps, at boot camp, the group was referred to as “The Navajo School.” 

Military discipline—obeying orders, marching in cadence, and keeping one’s quarters scrupulously clean, in Marine parlance “squared away”—was another new and sometime difficult experience, but nearly all the reservation recruits adjusted. Following basic training, the Navajos moved to Camp Pendleton at Oceanside, California. During a dress parade on a hot day, several white Marines passed out; the Navajos remained erect in formation and at attention during the personal inspection that followed. “They’re a typical Marine outfit of budding specialists,” the publication Marine Corps Chevron reported. “They gripe about the things that all Marines gripe about—liberty, chow and the San Diego weather.”  

The Navajos were assigned to devise a code in their language that would baffle enemy listeners. Code words had to be short and easily learned and recalled. The men developed a two-part code. A 26-letter phonetic alphabet used Navajo names for 18 animals or birds, plus the words “ice” (the letter I), “nut” (N), “quiver” (Q), “Ute” (U), “victor” (V), “cross” (X), “yucca” (Y), and “zinc” (Z). The second part was a 211-word English vocabulary with Navajo synonyms. 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 official distrust. 

One volunteer dropped out. Several remained in California to train the next group. Two became recruiters. The rest reported to Guadalcanal in August 1942, assigned to the First Marine Division, commanded by Major General Alexander Vandegrift, who soon was asking headquarters for 83 more Navajo just to handle encoding and decoding for his division. A second group of volunteers went through boot camp, then was assigned to the code-talker program at Camp Pendleton, which by August 1943 had trained nearly 200 Navajo and whose administrator was Staff Sergeant Philip Johnston. 

In jungle combat, stamina, Spartan habits, ingenuity, scouting and tracking skill, and utter disregard for hardship stood the Navajo in good stead. At first assigned mainly at the company-battalion level, code-talkers became virtually indispensable. Often, especially when a Marine regiment was fighting alongside an Army unit, white soldiers mistook the Navajo for the enemy, nearly costing several code-talkers their lives. Sometimes GIs “captured” and interrogated Navajo. Code-talker William McCabe, waiting on a Guadalcanal beach for his ship, joined a chow line. “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, a white fellow Marine accompanied McCabe at all times. 

On the eve of the First Marine Division’s departure for Okinawa, expected to be the bloodiest landing yet, the Navajo performed a sacred dance invoking their deities’ blessings and protection for themselves and other Americans. They prayed that their enemies prove weak. Some white personnel scoffed from the sidelines, but when war correspondent Ernie Pyle reported the story, he observed that the Okinawa landings had gone easier than had been anticipated, a point he said Navajo Marines were quick to point out to skeptics. When Japanese resistance inland almost halted the American advance, a white Marine asked his foxhole mate, a Navajo, what he thought of his prayers now. “This is completely different,” the Navajo said. “We only prayed for help during the landings.” 

Eyes On Target: A Navajo code talker tracks enemy movements at Saipan. (National Archives)

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 and the Marianas and on Peleliu and Iwo Jima. Of Iwo Jima, Fifth Marine Division Signal Officer Major Howard Conner 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.” 

“Navajo School” graduated 421 code talkers assigned mostly to combat units overseas. Following Japan’s surrender, several volunteered for occupation duty. Others were sent to Marine units in China. Code talker Willson Price stayed a Marine for 30 years, retiring in 1972. 

Most code talkers came home to family reunions and purification rites, traditional dances, and curing ceremonies, coupled with maternal prayers of thanks for sons’ safe return. These rites originated to protect returning Navajo from harmful influences they might have encountered or duties they had to to perform while away.  

Few former code-talkers displayed evidence of serious psychological problems or combat fatigue, but reservation life nonetheless proved difficult. The men missed the excitement, the challenges, and especially the privileges of wartime service. Some re-enrolled in high school, others attended college on the G.I. Bill. Teddy Draper, Sr., who volunteered for occupation duty, became so fluent in Japanese that he served as an interpreter. “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!” Draper said. In combat, he thought, “If I can get back to the reservation safely, I want to become a Navajo language teacher and educate young Navajos.”  

Draper did return to the reservation and become a teacher, but his experience was an exception. On the reservation, jobs were nonexistent. The G.I. Bill provided money for home loans to veterans, but many banks refused Navajo veterans loans because Navajo families held reservation land parcels in trust and had no proof of title. Despite this shameful treatment, one former code-talker said, “We’ve faced difficult situations before, and tough trails have never defeated us! Somehow the Navajos survived.” 

In June 1969, the Fourth Marine Division honored its Navajo members at the unit’s annual reunion in Chicago, presenting 20 former code-talkers with medallions honoring each man’s wartime exploits. A few veteran code talkers still take part in holiday parades, often riding in convertibles. The Navajo Nation has chosen several to serve as chairman and vice-chairman, the tribe’s top executive positions, and others have served on the Tribal Council. The Navajo Code Talkers’ Association meets regularly at Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation capital. 

In December 1971, President Richard M. Nixon presented the code talkers with a certificate of appreciation for the “patriotism, resourcefulness, and courage” they brought to bear in giving the Marine Corps its only unbreakable means of battlefield communication, saving thousands of American lives and perplexing the enemy to the very end. After the war, a former Japanese general acknowledged that Navajo transmissions had befuddled Japan’s most highly skilled cryptographers. An interviewer informed him that the troublesome code had been based on a Native American language. “Thank you,” the general said. “That is a puzzle I thought would never be solved.”  

William R. Wilson is a former New Mexico travel writer and photographer, whose articles and photographs have been featured in Life, Look, Better Homes and Gardens, Modern Maturity, Reader’s Digest, and other family magazines. ✯ 

 


Click here to read an interview with Code Talker Chester Nez

This story was originally published in the February 1997 issue of American History magazine. For more great articles, subscribe here.

 

79 Responses to Codemakers: History of the Navajo Code Talkers

  1. Bob says:

    this was no use at all.

    • WickedChik says:

      we dont need to know that…just comment if u really like this site…PLZ!…

      • kelly says:

        yes this site worked very well im doing a research paper for my history class and i got almost all my info from this great website!

      • Ginny says:

        If anybody knows, could you please give me the “official” age a Navajo boy/man had to be to join the marines? I know that it was in the upper-teens to age 30, but I cannot remember for the life of me the teen age!

  2. Bianca says:

    I think that this was a very helpful sight because it helped me get resources for my essay about the Navajo code talkers. But also there should have been more info about the code talkers rather than the other dudes. but thank you.
    in my language it would be ( Pi.dam.miyah) which means thank you!

  3. Amanda says:

    It helped me some what on my project. I’m doing Samuel Billison, who was a Navajo Code Talker.I’m doing it for the History Fair here in Utah. But it could have said some more things that weren’t that obvious. That would have been nice.

    • Ginny says:

      Amanda, I agree. I’m doing a National History Day project on the turning point that the code talkers presented, and i was hoping for a few more… intimate, i guess is the word- things. Otherwise, an awesome site!

  4. liza says:

    This Website was very helpful toward my project and thank you for all the information that was provided….

  5. udfhk says:

    THIS WAS VERY HELPFUL

  6. stargirl says:

    This is a really usefull site! it has lots of great information that supplise the hman mind with a satisfaction

  7. Panda says:

    Awesome :) it helped me alot with my research paper on Indian and American realtions. good info. i will most likely use this database again for future reference. thanks

  8. Adolf says:

    THIS WAS AWFUL

  9. CharmedOne says:

    Thank you so much for posting this for others to see. I am doing a research project and this site is very helpful. Thank you very much for doing this. I hope to use this site more often for my research projects and I will remember the link.

  10. NAZ-TSAID says:

    THIS WAS JUST THE MOST AMAZING SITE I HAVE EVER BEEN TO IN MY LIFE. YOU MAKE ME SMILE SITE!

  11. […] Peter MacDonald was 16 in 1944 when he joined the Marine Corps to become a Navajo Code Talker.  At the end of World War-II, he served a year in China repatriating Japanese POWs.  He used his […]

  12. WickedChik says:

    very helpful but need a little more information though…THANX!!!…

  13. NCT-grandaughter says:

    This site has offered insight and was helpful. However, it would be neat if there was more information. There is much more to these warrior’s story. I thank you for creating this so that others will not forget these men.

  14. richard strokes says:

    this website ssssuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkkkkkkksssssssss!!!!!!!!!:D

  15. leio ulu says:

    hey this was good n thanks!!!!!!!

  16. momma says:

    luv this site guys it was so awesome so ya shut up now

  17. marvin says:

    this was a very useful site

  18. Penelope says:

    THIS WEBSITE IS THE STUPIDEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!!!! A TOASTER COULD GIVE ME BETTER INFORMATION!!!!!!!!!! I HATE COMPUTERS!!!!!!! THIS WEBSITE IS A WASTE OF PRECIOUS MOMENTS OF MY LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Mot Dranwod says:

      Penelope, first, learn to type using both capitol letters to begin sentences and lower case, when appropriate. When you type in all caps it is called “yelling”. Back in the beginning of computers, people who didn’t know how to type well, used all caps. Your precious moments of your life don’t seem to be used learning anything about computers which are a normal part of daily life. It would also follow that you are criticizing something you have no ability in. Was learning to read and write also a waste of precious moments in your life? It would be enlightening what you consider a good use of “the precious moments of your life”?.Have you heard of the fable about the Fox and the Grapes? A Fox couldn’t eat grapes that grew out of his reach, so he said, “those grapes are no doubt too sour to eat”. Mean computer skills are out of your reach, so the info gained from them is no doubt “to sour” to digest.

    • artee11(person who take's exaggerations literally) says:

      wow, we must both have very different toasters.. I’m not sure if the website was a waste of your time, but indeed you were the one who chose to waste your time on it :P….. What are you doing on a computer anyway?? You must’ve been very stressed at the moment…

    • burl says:

      First computers are awesome. Second a toaster wouldn’t give you any information. Third it never wasted a precious moment of your life.

  19. bigred says:

    THIS WEBSITE IS THE BEST I WILL TELL ALL OF MY FRIEND AND FAMILY

  20. Brennan says:

    This was the best website I could find on this subject as of yet, and will help me very much with the ten page paper I’m writing for my Cultural Diversities class! So for all you haters just because it doesn’t have pictures doesn’t mean it’s not a great website!

  21. Dortega says:

    OMG THIS WAS SOO……HELPFUL.for a while i was with da haters. then i saw it shows the author title publisher place and date :). thats all i needed for a note card :) plus some info of course. i think i will use this later too XD

  22. your mom says:

    It was a good site, but i already knew the stuff about Johnston. There needs to be more infromation on the code talkers!

  23. artee11 says:

    don’t know why buncha people are so impertinent but thanks for your efforts for gathering the information :)

  24. mee says:

    Ths site was very helpful

  25. […] Click here to read an article about the Code Talkers. […]

  26. The kid in after school Detention right now says:

    Well, im needing help with this. i need to do a report on this, i need all of the facts i need. (yes im in detention)

  27. […] to realize that not only were the Navajo helpful, they were our secret weapon. They developed a two-part code which used a translation of american words into Native […]

  28. Janet Hernandez Ramirez says:

    I realize that the Navajos are helpful and use a secret language and they take a Navajo’s Dictionary and they lost the dictionary they in trouble. Because my class are studying about the Navajo Code Talkers.

    • Brenda says:

      Yes the navajos were really helpful, if it weren’t for them many lives would have been lost and we would have lost (:

  29. mark says:

    What is this? i have to say in give great in-sight about the war but still seem a little short on the info about the “code talkers”. I am a native and i believe that these men and boys had done a great deal of work and i think that goes unrecognized in times of political debate about the well-being of native americans.

  30. Paul Cullen says:

    The ‘kid in detention’ NEEDS too much but what the returning Navajo code talkers needed was to be treated in peace time with the same respect that their skills, and utmost bravery, had been on the battlefield of the Pacific islands. History shows us far too often that politicians use people when they need something, but rarely reward those who give freely, and often with the ultimate sacrifice. Too little too late for many who served. Equality when putting their lives on the line; inequality in a world that owed them so much.

  31. Clinton says:

    That was very well said Paul Cullen!!

  32. […] Nez, one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, and the last surviving Code Talker, died at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on June 4, 2014. […]

  33. […] Navajo Code Talkers Day is celebrated on August 14, President Ronald Reagan declared in 1982 to officially honor the Code Talkers for their service to our country. During World War II the Allied Forces found it hard to stump the Japanese code breakers or cryptographers. Now a little history: the military was not the one to come up with idea it was civilian named Philip Johnston, he was a civil engineer in Los Angeles but had grown up on the Navajo Indian Reservation, his parents were Protestant missionaries. Johnston read an article about the military communications debilitating losses. Johnston went to Camp Elliott to meet with Lieutenant Colonel James E. Jones, Marines’ Signal Corps Communications Officer. Jones was not convinced that it would work but after Johnston explained the language, inflections and completely different meanings that one word may mean, they gave it a try. The initial run was a success so the Marines needed volunteers by mid-April of 1942, they traveled to the Navajo reservation to recruit personnel. Now these recruits had to be bilingual in both English and Navajo languages. The enlistees also had to be physically fit. After boot camp, the new Marines were to construct a new Military 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.” http://historynet.wpengine.com/world-war-ii-navajo-code-talkers.htm […]

  34. Wanita says:

    Helping my daughter with a history project on minorities & their contributions to the war. We found it extremely helpful, it also gave us links to other sites & information on the book itself.

    This sure beats The Buffalo Soldiers that most of the kids are already doing a report on. This is something different & was not already taught.

    Fingers crossed for an A+.

  35. Jesse Carlson says:

    I like this very much, it made me smile because they help people. Native Americans are cool

  36. Izzy says:

    So where did they go to school?

  37. Jessi w. says:

    this page was really helpful to me. Im doing a National History Day project and this gave me some much needed info. THKS!!
    :)

  38. Marshal says:

    All of you people that are saying OH THIS SUCKS it’s prob because you have no life and just go onto sites and hate.

  39. da cat says:

    I true dat

  40. da doge says:

    NO

  41. not da doge says:

    sorry

  42. Wut says:

    Why is there such anger over this website
    makes no sense
    why are people angry at vague history
    just chill and find another website

  43. burl says:

    no it doesn’t. I’ve known a lot about Navajo code talkers but this has helped me know more about them.

  44. burl says:

    im doing it for a research project at school and i think it kinda needs more info otherwise its awesome.(tried to do this quickly so don’t judge my grammer)

  45. […] in 1942, Philip Johnston, a civil engineer who had lived among Native Americans, proposed the Navajo language as a code. He affirmed the code was unbreakable. The Army was skeptical: all codes are […]

  46. Raven says:

    This was a really helpful site!

  47. Stephen Kinnie says:

    I am currently at our family reunion in Washington State. It is being held at the Jim Creek Naval Radio Station campground. I feel that some communication training was done here with us Natives. Rather it was post WW II or not. Does anyone have any information on the topic?

  48. […] Arizona, this past Friday. He was there partly to honor his late great-grandfather Wilford Buck, a Navajo code talker who served during World War […]

  49. Jackie Phillips says:

    Outstanding article! Great to see this important part of history will not be forgotten.

  50. Armin Webster says:

    They were and are true Marines! They lived, fought and died for the country they loved. They were and are my brothers in arms. You will not be forgotten.
    Semper Fi, my brother Marines.
    Armin Webster, Gunnery Sergeant, United States Marine Corps, Retired

  51. joesph amparan says:

    the only thing i dont like is this ad that covers most of the page and i cant read it

    do because of that i only got to read half of it

  52. LeDeannethea Clark says:

    I am very blessed to know that my grandpapa was a World War 2 Navajo Code Talker… RIP Dan Akee

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