Navajo Code Talkers

Successful warfare depends on effective communication among fighting units. The enemy must be kept from intercepting and listening in on messages. Encryption: coding information so that it can only be decoded by someone who has the know-how, was used to conceal the meaning of communications. Codes have often been deciphered in military history.

A brief summary

Navajo Code Talkers were instrumental in U.S. success in the Pacific during World War II. Navajo marines designed a secret warfare code that foiled expert Japanese code breakers who had managed to crack army and navy codes. Its secret lay in the intricacy of the Navajo tongue, some of whose sounds were unique, and it had no symbols or alphabet. A regional language, it was relegated to the southwest U.S. alone.

A bright idea

Philip Johnston, son of a missionary, grew up on the Navajo reservation in northern New Mexico, part of southern Utah, and part of northern Arizona Although he was non-Navajo, he learned the language as a youngster. Later a World War I vet, Johnston had heard about Choctaw-speaking soldiers who communicated by radio, fooling the Germans in a crucial battle. The Americans won that engagement. A light went on in Johnston's head, and he took his bright idea to Lt. Colonel James E. Jones, a marine signal officer.

Jones was wary of Johnston's proposal. For one thing, many Native-American languages lacked such military terms as 'bayonet.' If such a word became useful in the Navajo tongue, it would be adopted intact, i.e. 'bayonet.' Lt. Colonel Jones thought that such adopted words would make a Native American code easy to crack.

However, Johnston thought a word or two already present in Navajo could be used to substitute for 'bayonet,' e.g. 'gun knife.' A tryout to demonstrate fluency in simulated combat conditions was arranged for Maj. General Clayton B. Vogel. It was a success, and a recommendation was sent to the Marine Corps commandant to recruit 200 Navajos. A dry run of just 30 men was allowed to begin. Recruitment began in 1942.

The idea gets tread

Marine recruiters traveled to the Navajo reservation to recruit 30 young Navajo-speaking men. One dropped out. The remaining recruits were sent to boot camp at Fort Elliot, California, where they became the 382nd Platoon, USMC. They learned to survive in a harsh environment suggestive of the South Pacific. The platoon proved to be some tough new marines.

Camp Pendleton, near Oceanside, California, became the encryption site. The young marines were charged with encoding the Navajo tongue, which would become the famous "unbreakable code." They were carefully tested for spoken fluency in the code. Even accomplished Navajo speakers, not trained in the code, were stymied. As a result, it was adopted for combat settings, and 200 more Navajos were recruited. Johnston enlisted in the USMC and took over training new recruits, as well as two other trainers selected from the platoon.

The remaining 27 marines of the 382nd were deployed to Guadalcanal. Later, when a talker was ready, he was sent to a marine unit in the Pacific theater. Some marine commanders were initially confused by the code-talkers' role, but when the latter were paired with communication specialists, their potential became clear.

Nothing succeeds like...

Navajo code talkers participated in every marine assault in the Pacific, from 1942 to 1945. They served in all six marine divisions, transmitting information about tactics, troop movements, orders and other communications by telephone and radio. The young marines handled all major battlefield communications. Not one was deciphered by the Japanese. During the battle for Iwo Jima alone, the code-talkers successfully sent more than 800 messages.

Praise in the Corps grew for virtually error-free service. As of 1945, there were up to 420 trained code talkers. The Navajo tongue remained useful following the war, which delayed well-earned recognition of the code talkers until recent years. America's victory in the South Pacific would have been much more difficult to grasp without the code talkers.

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Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac.
The United States is at war, and sixteen-year-old Ned Begay wants to join the cause?e--specially when he hears that Navajos are being specifically rec...