Why were Navajo code talkers used during WW2?

Why were Navajo code talkers used during WW2?

In history class, we are covering WW2. On the topic of code-talking, Native American language usage was mentioned, but nothing was said about cryptography. An online search did not come up with any clear information relating the two topics. Why was the use of Native American languages the preferred method of code talking? Was cryptography crack-able, so not used?


In WW2 we didn't have digital computers. We didn't even have transistors. Even vacuum tubes were state-of-the-art. If you wanted to do cryptography on the battlefield, you used something like this Enigma machine.

Basically a fancy typewriter, it did all its encryption with gears and wires. If you wanted to send a message your radio operator had to check your code book for the daily key. Then come up with a key prefix. Then you either wrote down the message or dictated it to them. They typed it in and wrote down the result one letter at a time. Then they got out their radio and sent it via Morse code, probably the fastest part of the whole procedure. Though flawed, it was pretty good cryptography for the time and took an enormous effort to crack.

This is all fine if you're a division commander safely behind the lines in your command vehicle, but if you're a platoon leader on the front lines getting shot at, lugging around an oversized typewriter is a bit slow and cumbersome. Not to mention a radio operator and precious code books that you don't want falling into the hands of the enemy. Even having a radio was a luxury in WWII.

If you were in the US army, and you were really lucky, you might get one of these…

… an SCR-536 "handie talkie" radio! State of the art with FIVE vacuum tubes! But you probably got an SCR-300 "walkie talkie" which was literally a backpack.

While it was capable of sending Morse code, operators obviously preferred voice. If you thought encrypting Morse code with a typewriter was bulky, slow and impractical, if you wanted to do voice communications you used this.

Say hello to SIGSALY! Weighing in at a mere 50 tons and using just 30kW of power. SIGSALY essentially added and then subtracted pseudo-random noise from the conversation using vinyl records as a one-time pad. A set of those records had to be distributed to all users worldwide.

With all that in mind, finding some guys who speak a language your enemy doesn't understand makes a lot more sense.

It wasn't just Navajo who were code talkers. Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Comanche… even Basque was used. Any language it was unlikely the enemy knew or even had books for. Even Pig Latin could be effective at confusing a non-native English speaker trying to make out a message over a crackly radio.

While this was security-through-obscurity, that worked a lot better back in WWII. Tactical radios had a very short range, a few miles, so it was unlikely anyone in range knew the language and it's not like they could order a Navajo-Japanese dictionary on Amazon. Since it was voice, and recording equipment was bulky and expensive, it was very unlikely anyone in range could record it for later analysis. Even if they did, it was used to transmit tactical information; by the time it was decoded it would be useless.

One of the myths about the Code Talkers, at least the Navajo, was that, at the time, they had no written language and thus you couldn't learn it without a native. This was not true.

Instead, the written language began as various transcriptions either to provide information to US military scouts, or more often for missionaries. In 1917 a Bible was published, God Bîzad, which featured a transcribed alphabet, basic pronunciation guide, and basic word examples. In the 1930s and 40s the Bureau of Indian Affairs developed a unified written language. By 1943 you could get a dictionary and grammar guide, The Navajo Language. You could even get a typewriter with Navajo characters and a newspaper, Ádahooníłígíí.


"The Code Book" of Simon Singh mentions several points why code talkers where so useful.

  • Speed: One of the colonels in charge tried exactly that: code machine against Navajo code. The Navajo was able to talk in real-time, while the machine fall hopelessly behind - very important during tactical situations.

  • Strength of code: The Navajos was one of the few tribes which had had no contact with enemy anthropologists. Their language, Diné bizaad, belongs to the Na-dene isolated family of languages, Those languages had a very unusual flexion pattern and Diné bizaad was even inscrutable for other tribes. The best decryption team of the USA who were able to crack the Japanese PURPLE code were speechless when confronted with the Navajo language. Because the tones were completely different from anything with the usual A-Z, they could even not transcribe or differentiate the phonemes.

  • No access point: In the former edit I said that the Navajo had no writing system to transcribe their language. Schwern pointed out that there were a Bible translation and later an unified writing system, but (and this is critically) the first unified system was not developed before 1935, meaning it was not available for the Navajos working as codetalker. The Navajo were used to learning everything by heart and so there were no codebooks which could be stolen, copied or captured. Even if the enemies captured one talker and that talker tried to teach the language, it would have taken years for someone to master the language.

  • Security and Authentication: Not only was the information protected, it also clearly identified friend and foe. The enemy could not create disarray or confusion by fake transmissions. While using other languages like Pig Latin or strong dialects in the heat of the battle give some protection, they can be recorded, analyzed later and transmit valuable information about the tactics and strategy.


Code talking in an obscure language puts two layers of encryption on the message. The first layer is that it's a language. The second is that it's a code. The code part is usually pretty simple with code words replacing the real words. The phrase "Omaha beach" is simple code. The place we called Omaha beach probably has an actual name in French or German. Oral codes based on simple word substitutions are easy to crack, given enough coded messages, and some inkling of the underlying subject matter.
Deciphering an unknown language is enormously difficult, even after you realize that it is a language. It can take months to figure out the variations in normal speech. For example, verb tenses might work differently in Navajo language than in English or German. Word order might be different, and in a context dependent way. To a native speaker, this transformation is easy to do in real time, without much mental effort, except when some concept is difficult to convey. The military messages in the field are usually easy to convey in another language. They involve place, time, and action.
So what you get is a high cost on the would be interceptor and a low cost on the encoder-decoder team.
The wikipedia article (see Code Talker) mentions the two layers in passing. It also provides more details, like what languages other than Navajo were used.

EDIT: This edit is based on some of the commentary on the other answers. When I wrote my answer, I assumed that the Japanese (I guess the Navajo code-talkers were used in the Pacific) would have to learn the obscure language on their own, without reference to prior research on the Navajo language. Some of the other answers have asserted that there was plenty of research available, including dictionaries. I still think that research would have been very, very hard for the Japanese to put their hands on in the middle of a war.

Still, I have to admit that this is a case of security through obscurity, albeit a very though case to crack. I still think it was a better plan than the alternatives, in the wartime theater where it was used. It was quick to set up, and gave the US a longer period of safe communications through field radios than any viable alternative. And, as I said, the cost on the US coders was low, while the cost on the Japanese crackers was high.


The need to keep mission assignments encoded and unreadable for the enemy is at times called "information warfare" or in today's military "electronic warfare", "EloKa" (german for Elektronische Kamfgruppe) and by many different terms. It has its root very much in the World War II and what the military had learned in WW I. So a quick look back:

WW 1

During the first World war, there was little to no radio setup and messages were sent by field telephones (with cable!) and morse (cable too!) to and from the trenches and then distributed by messengers on foot or horse. To keep the vital information unusable by enemies, encryption was usually done with a code book that contained the clear words and the code words.

However, the day to day status reports at the front usually went along unencoded, especially since the language barrier between French/German, Russian/German and English/German combatants. For example in the German Army it was much easier to find a soldier that spoke fluently greek or latin (because he had visited a humanistic gymnasium where that was part of the curriculum) than someone who was equally good in English or spoke a decent French. Still, there were these people, but not in a number large enough to compromise day to day messages that fell to enemy hands, and thus made cryptography a thing for very secure messages.

Also, decoding and encoding took quite some time, but it was pretty much doable "in time" to respond - at least for diplomatic messages. One of these messages was the Zimmerman Telegram .

WW2

Encryption

Unlike in WW1, communications equipment had improved a lot. Radios were no longer huge stations that could relay information cross country on their own, they had become quite transportable - about the size of a backpack or large typewriter, and even some smaller at times. However, WW1 had also proven, that just using code booklets was no good way to bring along messages, and in the time between the wars "Electromechanic" systems like the German Enigma had been developed, that made encryption and decryption much faster with the machine, if you knew the codebook.

Decryption

This encryption method proved to be failsafe against decoding by hand, however, the Allies managed to reverse engineer quite some about the machines, even without decoding the messages properly. For example, it was known quite some that the encrypted messages themselves had to begin with a very specific block, which at least allowed to cut down the possibilities: there were only 6 ways how the initial 3 rotors could be assembled and so it was pretty possible to find the right code with a device called "Bomba", which just tried to find the right order (1/6) and then the right starting letters (1/26)³. This would get the right message on the first try with a chance of 1 in 105,456, speeding through all of them within hours. Still, that was a pretty time-consuming process, but it worked pretty well for the Polish Army until 15th December 1938. On that day, new wheels threw off the decryption process and made 56 out of 60 messages illegible to them, even if they reverse engineered the new wheels pretty fast - the chance had fallen to 1 in 1,054,560 to decipher the code with the first try and thus decoding time went through the roof by a factor of 10.

With the new wheels, the possible combinations became much more than anyone could handle by hand, and so the British MI1 at Bletchley Park stepped in. They built just another machine, that would try about every single possibility. The British "Bombe" it was much bigger and ran through a lot more combinations, day and night than the Polish predecessor. it was only needed for one machine to find the right set of wheels and start setting, and subsequently have an other machine decode the messages of the day automatically.

Codetalkers

It became pretty clear to the Allies, that the Germans did not know that by September 1939 their communication had become as good as clear text (with only some hours delay) to the Allies. But it was a good possibility that the Germans would develop something similar to their own decoding machines if they would rely on a similar device. Also, they figured out, that the knowledge of English, Russian or French language was much more widespread in Germany than in the war before. So there had to be done something to keep the german intelligence from discovering tactics. To achieve this, encryption by using an obscure language set was chosen. How this happens can be pretty well seen in Schwern's answer.


Firstly, the Code/Wind talkers were used almost exclusively in front line tactical units. This meant they communicated via very short range walkie-talkies or land lines.

The walkie-talkies had short range e.g. <3 miles in optimal conditions. Given the mountains and jungles of the pacific war, the walkie-talkies could usually reach the company HQ and not much else. Front men at the front could reach their first level of command, maybe. The whole one guy with a walki-talkie calling out to battleship miles off the coast for air support is pure Hollywood.

Land-lines, telephones, were far more common and reliable but easily tapped. In some versions, which the German made heavy use off, the return circuit was actually the ground itself, making tapping just a matter of getting withen a few yards/meters with a probe.

In tactical situations, minutes count, so encryption devices or code books were so slow to be useless. Besides, code books and gadgets were easily captured as each side raided the other constantly expressly for prisoners and intelligence.

The Japanese learned a lot of Navajo very quickly by the simply expedient of capturing Wind-talkers and torturing them or, as was more common, other prisoners. Stoic Navajo Marines could stand a lot of pain themselves but broke watching the Japanese set their fellow marines or local civilian children on fire.

(The pacific island war was "War to the Knife" as the Japanese broke almost every conceivable law, rule or custom of civilized warfare and the allied forces of Americans, Aussies and Kiwi soon learned to give as good as the got (which the Geneva convention allows.) Which is why thidea that U.S, soldier cracked in Vietnam is so silly. Their father's had fought through much more worse for much longer… but I digress.)

What made their verbal communications the most opaque was their use of metaphors and illusions rooted in the culture and environmental experiences of Navajo people themselves. The used the behavior of animals, weather, terrain, culture and religion, often hastily converted into an ever evolving code,e.g. one week using rabbits to mean speed but using them to mean slow the next. That made their dialog unintelligible not only to the enemy but even to captured Navajo tortured into attempting decrypt the intercepted dialog.

The controlling factor though was the pace of tactical combat. Given weeks or months, any verbal code could be cracked but the Japanese only had hours or days at most to make use of the intelligence because it because useless as the tactical situation changed.

They Code/Wind talkers were only the most famous of those who founds means for secure ad hoc communications. America had a vast "toolkit" of many subcultures many whose speech proved almost unintelligible to anyone one else. The Navy used back-hills Southerns, both white and black to communicate in their drawling, metaphor chocked dialect. In one case, two Italians appeared to sing drunkingly across a land line assumed to be trapped, and no one, not even other Italians could understand them.

In my favorite trick, they had Japanese-Americans simply babble across compromised lines in slang ridden Japanese, causing the Imperial Japanese to waste a lot time trying to make sense out non-sense.


Marines’ Secret Weapon in the Pacific: Navajo Code Talkers

The Navajo ‘Code Talkers’ were one of the most unrecognized groups of Native Americans involved in cryptography in military history. They used their native Navajo tongue, a language the Japanese could never decipher, to communicate important messages during World War II. The Navajo believed that their language was sacred and that it was first spoken at the dawn of creation.

The language is considered an Athabaskan language, which is a language group derived from the natives that live in Alaska and Canada. In addition, according to linguists, the language is believed to ultimately be of Siberian or Tibetan origin. It is also believed that the language came from those who spoke many Tibetan languages before they crossed the landbridge that existed between the Eurasian and North American continents during the Ice Age.

General Douglas MacArthur meeting five Native American troops serving in one unit, February 1944.

After crossing the landbridge, they eventually settled in the southwestern United States. Years later, when the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century, their systematic oppression began. After the Spanish, the settlers from the eastern United States encountered the Navajo. Conflicts arose as the settlers took lands east of the Mississippi.

During the nineteenth century, Civil War generals like William Sherman had a policy of eradicating the Native Americans. Sherman himself declared “The more we kill this year, the less we will have to kill next year.” By 1863, the US military, led by General Kit Carson, was tracking the Navajo, slaughtering livestock, burning crops, villages and all those who opposed it. Consequently, the Navajo were driven 400 miles from Oklahoma to Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Their exile would be later known as The Long Walk. After suffering for four years in exile, the Navajo leaders negotiated a treaty with the United States allowing they returned to the homeland known to the Navajo as the Four Sacred Mountains.

Christopher ‘Kit’ Carson (1809-1868), American explorer and Army general.

Once the Navajo had returned home, the Federal government assumed responsibility for educating Navajo children. They were sent to boarding schools to rid them of their culture and to ‘Americanize’ them. Not only were they taken from their homes, they were ordered to bury their culture and they were punished if they didn’t.

They were not allowed to speak their original tongue in public and they were also told that their pagan religion was wrong and that they need to renounce it in order to become ‘civilized.’ In summary, they were told how to be white and that the practice of the Navajo culture was forbidden.

Carl Laurmen, a former Navajo code talker recalled his experiences during Indian school in the 1920s and retold by his daughter in the documentary “In search of History – Navajo Code Talkers.” he describes his experience of how he would always get demerits for speaking Navajo because it was totally forbidden.

Navajo Code Talkers

Then, in 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Shortly thereafter, the Navajo heard of the attack. As a response, hundreds of young Navajo men reported for duty at the Reservation Agency.

These brave Navajo men had a strong sense of pride and duty and wanted to protect their nation. They believed that this was their land and they were obligated to protect it. Many of them were already knowledgeable of the fact the Japanese were conquering the Pacific.

A posed shot of Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez taken during World War II.

However, because the Navajo had experienced many years of abuse from the United States, some felt that they had no reasons to join the war. But, as the Japanese were advancing throughout the Pacific, the US military was in need of swift and secure communications which the Allies lacked. Many of the nation’s best military minds came together to solve the problem.

Two months after the Pearl Harbor bombings, Phillip Johnston, a civil engineer, had an idea. He believed that the Navajo could use their complex language in the military for fast and secure communications. However, the Marines needed proof that this system would work. As a result, a demonstration was required to prove that the language was useful for combat.

The Navajo could easily encode, transmit and decode any three lines in English in less than 20 seconds. This easily beat cryptography machines that could take thirty minutes. The Navajo language was understood by few. Those who knew the language grew up speaking it from birth.

Due to the isolation of the Navajo community, no outsiders could understand or speak the language. The Japanese, on the other hand, had highly skilled code breakers. Some Japanese could speak English fluently having been educated in the US and were able to break American code. Therefore, the Navajo had the upper hand. By using a language that was complex and only they could understand, the Japanese could never decipher the code.

Code Talker Private Leslie Hemstreet of Crystal, New Mexico, on Okinawa, c. 1945.

Code language

An unidentified Code Talker on Tarawa in November 1943

The Marines, knowing that Navajos could help win the war, created the 382nd platoon as a special coding unit. In April 1942, the Marines sent recruiters to the Navajo Nation and many of the recruits lied about their age just so they could enlist. Their actual ages ranged from age 15 to age 35, therefore often outside the actual age limits. Only 29 young Navajo men would become the first to be sent to the Navajo Code School in California.

In the Navajo Code School, “The First 29” created 411 terms that could be used in combat. The Navajo even invented words that had never been used before. For example, ‘ship’ became ‘fish’, ‘plane’ became ‘bird’, and ‘grenade’ would be ‘potato’. All of these words would have a special meaning to the Navajo and would prove to be effective in the war zone.

For coding particular letters, the Navajo would first use a Navajo word and then translate it to English, and whatever the first letter was in the English translation, would become the letters that would make up the military term. The code was foolproof.

Before the Navajo went into battle, they would perform their traditional prayer as their ancestors did before they went into battle. They would put corn pollen on their tongues and pray to the “Holy Ones” to protect them in battle.

Code Talkers en route to Okinawa, 1945.

In August 1942, at Guadalcanal, the Navajo Code Talkers were put to the test, not as code talkers, but as soldiers in battle. Many commanders were totally ignorant on how to use the Code Talkers. So clueless in fact, they were first used as messengers on foot. As time went by the commanders finally put the Code Talkers into communicating via radio.

This finally proved the Code Talkers were in fact very useful. Marine casualties were reduced and the US military was winning. The enemy tried desperately to decipher the code, but the Navajo code proved to be a helmet and a shield to American intelligence information on the battlefield.

As a result of the success, marines requested more Talkers. After the Guadalcanal experiment, 83 more were sent to the Pacific theater. A year later, there were more than 150 stationed there.

Code Talkers on Bougainville, 1943.

The Code Talkers directed air support and artillery from naval ships. They helped win island after island, driving the enemy back. By this time, the Code Talker program grew until about 400 Navajos were in the Pacific. In the 5000 year history of Japan, no one had ever invaded Japanese soil until the Battle of Iwo Jima.

In February 1945, 880 ships carrying 110,000 marines, including the Navajo soldiers, landed on the island of Iwo Jima. Each Japanese soldier was ordered to kill at least 10 Americans and to battle to their deaths. In the Battle of Iwo Jima, six Code Talkers spent 48 hours nonstop sending and receiving over 800 messages.

As the war was coming to an end, a Navajo radio operator on the island of Okinawa was one of the first to receive word that atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that the war was over. By the end of the war around 3600 Navajo had served in various branches, although only about 400 were Code Talkers.

Code Talker Samuel Sandoval, Okinawa, 1945.

In summary, no one thing could have won the war. However, no one could deny the fact that the US had something the Japanese did not (in addition to the atomic bomb). When the Navajo returned home, they were ordered to keep their code a secret in case it was needed again someday. Unfortunately, despite their important role in the war, the Navajo Code Talkers were not publicly recognized until 1969.


The Real ‘Windtalkers’ of WWII: The Story of a Navajo Code Talker

Thomas Begay is just one of the estimated 170,699 vets residing in New Mexico. And he is one of the few Navajos who were recruited during the Second World War to be a Navajo code talker. They communicated orders through the radio using their own language and, according to Begay, formulating other codes using their own native tongue.

Thomas Begay was able to serve both in the Second World War and in the Korean war as a Navajo code talker. He even said that he was able to serve in the Battle of Iwo Jima for 38 days, from February 17 to March 27, 1945. Serving in the 5th Division of the US Marines, he, along with his unit, was the one responsible for making and relaying encrypted codes. These secret messages were very important as they monitored the movements of the troops as well as helped defeat the enemies.

The former Navajo code talker recounted how he and his team formulated a code using the names of things in the Navajo language. For example, they used the names of various birds to pertain to the different planes of the Second World War.

Begay even added that the Navajo code they created was never decoded by anyone, that it remained unbroken throughout WWII. Even other Navajos were never able to decipher it. In Begay’s counting, his team of Navajo code talkers were able to send out as many as 800 coded messages and not one of them had mistakes. They were the ones to provide communications for the US Marine Corps stationed in the South Pacific.

Former Navajo code talker Thomas Begay’s legacy in the military service continued on with his sone, Ronald Begay, who followed in his footsteps as a soldier. The younger Begay served as a US Airborne Ranger.

Both father and son were present during the annual veterans ceremony held at the New Mexico Veterans’ memorial Park on Veterans Day, November 11. For them, the event is a solemn commemoration of those, who like them, served to ensure the freedom of the country.


Why were Navajo code talkers used during WW2? - History

Navajo code talkers posing during World War II.

The Navajo language is a complex beast, even for those who have grown up speaking it.

Words, depending on their inflections when spoken, can have up to four different meanings, and the verb tenses are near-impossible to decipher. Until the late 20th century, the language didn’t even have an alphabet and didn’t exist anywhere in a written form. For all intents and purposes, Navajo was an incomprehensible language to anyone outside of the small pocket of southwestern American people who spoke it.

However, that was exactly what made it the perfect candidate for a wartime code.

National Archives Cpl. Henry Bake, Jr., and Pfc. George H. Kirk, Navajos serving in December of 1943 with a Marine Corps signal unit, operate a portable radio set in a clearing that they have hacked in the dense jungle behind the front lines.

In 1942, the Allies were pressed in both theatres of World War II. France had been taken over and England was still struggling to cope with the effects of the Blitz. Communication between Allied soldiers was becoming difficult, as the Japanese were becoming better at breaking the codes used by their enemies.

It seemed that almost every form of communication had some sort of flaw. However, Philip Johnston thought otherwise.

Johnston was a civil engineer from Los Angeles, who had read about the issues that the United States was having with military security and finding an unbreakable code. Being the son of missionaries, Johnston had grown up on the Navajo Reservation, which stretches between New Mexico and Arizona.

He had also grown up speaking Navajo. Immediately he knew it was exactly what the government needed.

After thinking through his idea, Johnson visited U.S. Marine Corps Camp Elliot in San Diego. Though at 50 he was too old to fight in the war, he was determined to lend his services in any way he could. At Camp Elliot, he met with Signal Corp Communications Officer Lieutenant Colonel James E. Jones, who he convinced to let him demonstrate how his code idea could be effective.

Wikimedia Commons A Navajo code talker enlistment letter.

Though the marine officers were skeptical, they eventually agreed to hear Johnston out and promised that they would observe a test run of the code if he could organize it. So, Johnston went back to Los Angeles and rounded up his troops.

He managed to recruit four bilingual Navajo men for his demonstration and on Feb. 28, 1942, brought them back to Camp Elliot for a demonstration. The marine officers split the Navajo men into pairs, placing them in separate rooms. Their task was simple, to give a message in English, to one pair of Navajo, and have it sent to the other pair for retranslation.

To the amazement of the marine officers, the message was accurately translated, and in record time. Immediately Camp Elliot commander Major General Clayton Vogel sent a message to the Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington D.C. In his message, he requested approval to recruit 200 young, well-educated Navajo men to be Marine communications specialists.

Though the government only approved the recruitment of 30 men, they ultimately accepted the plan. Before long, Marine Corps personnel were actively recruiting young men from the Navajo Reservation.

Navajo code talkers working in the field.

As much as the experience had been new for the Marine Corps, it was nothing compared to the way that the Navajo recruits felt.

Before the arrival of the recruiters, most of the Navajo people had never left the reservation – some of them had never even seen a bus or train, let alone ridden on one. Even more of a change was the highly regimented lifestyle that came along with enlistment in the Marine Corps. The discipline was unlike anything they had ever seen, and the expectation that they would obey orders, march in line, and keep their quarters clean at all times took time for the recruits to adjust to.

Before long, however, they settled in and got to work. Their first task was simple to create a simple, easy to remember code in their language that would be impossible to break if overheard by enemy listeners. Before long, the recruits had developed a two-part code.

National Archives Navajo code talkers upon returning from the war.

The first part was written as a 26-letter phonetic alphabet. Each letter would represent the Navajo names for 18 animals, as well as the words “ice,” “nut,” “quiver,” “ute,” “victor,” “cross,” “yucca,” and “zinc,” as there was no Navajo word for animals that began with the letters they represented. The second part involved a 211-word list of English words that had simple Navajo synonyms.

Unlike conventional military codes, which were long and complicated and had to be written out and transmitted to someone who would have to spend hours decoding it on electronic equipment, the Navajo code’s brilliance lay in its simplicity. The code relied solely on the sender’s mouth and the receiver’s ears and took much less time to decipher.

Furthermore, the code had another advantage. Because the Navajo vocabulary words and their English counterparts had been picked at random, even someone who managed to learn Navajo couldn’t break the code, as they would only see a list of seemingly-meaningless Navajo words.

Wikimedia Commons The flag of the Navajo nation.

By August of 1942, the Navajo code talkers were ready for combat and reported to Guadalcanal to serve under Major General Alexander Vandegrift. Within days Vandergrift was blown away by the efficiency of the code talkers, and had written to headquarters to ask for 83 more.

By the next year, the Marine Corps had almost 200 Navajo code talkers in their employ.

While their code talking became invaluable in many aspects of war, the Navajo code talkers got their shining moment during the Battle of Iwo Jima. For two days straight, six Navajo code talkers worked around the clock, sending and receiving over 800 messages – all of them without error.

Major Howard Connor, the signal officer in charge of the mission praised the efforts of the code talkers, giving them credit for the mission’s success. “Were it not for the Navajos,” he said, “the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

Navajo code talkers were used through the end of the war, and by the time the Japanese surrendered, the Marines had enlisted 421 code talkers.

Most of them had enjoyed their time and their service to their country and continued to work as communication specialists for the Marines. In 1971, the Navajo code talkers were awarded a certificate of appreciation by President Richard Nixon for their patriotism, resourcefulness, and courage in battle.

To this day, the Navajo code talkers’ language remains the only unbreakable code ever used by the Marine Corps.

After learning about the Navajo code talkers contributions during World War II, check out these heart-stopping photos from World War II. Then, read about Calvin Graham, World War II’s youngest decorated soldier.


Code talker

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Code talker, any of more than 400 Native American soldiers—including Assiniboin, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Comanche, Cree, Crow, Fox, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Navajo, Ojibwa, Oneida, Osage, Pawnee, Sauk, Seminole, and Sioux men—who transmitted sensitive wartime messages by speaking their native languages, in effect using them as codes. In both World War I and World War II, but especially the latter, the code talkers provided U.S. forces with fast communications over open radio waves, knowing that the enemy was unable to break the code. By all accounts the service of the code talkers was crucial to winning World War II in the Pacific theatre.

The first known official use of code talkers occurred in October 1918, when eight Choctaw men serving in France (who were at the time not citizens of the United States) were put to use as telephone communicators during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The Germans were unable to make sense of the Choctaw language (of Muskogean linguistic stock), which was unique to the North American continent and had a small number of speakers. Although the code talkers had been highly effective, little time remained in the war for this improvisation to be exploited on a larger scale.

During World War II Philip Johnston, who was the son of missionaries to the Navajo and had grown up on a Navajo reservation, proposed to the U.S. Marine Corps that the Navajo language (Athabaskan language family) be exploited for tactical radio and telephone communications. Like almost all Native American languages, Navajo had no alphabet (thus no printed matter that could be helpful to an enemy), and its unique syntax and tonal qualities defied the enemy’s attempts to interpret information being broadcast. Because there were no Navajo words for various military ranks and pieces of equipment, further code references had to be agreed upon. These hybrid terms—such as besh-lo (“iron fish”), meaning “submarine” dah-he-tih-hi (“hummingbird”), meaning “fighter plane” and debeh-li-zine (“black street”), meaning “squad”—ultimately grew to a list of more than 400 words, all of which had to be carefully memorized.

The Marine Corps initiated its employment of the Navajo code talkers with its first cohort of 29 recruits in May 1942. They served in all of the marine divisions and took part in their major campaigns. By the end of the war, the Marine Corps had employed 540 Navajos for service, 375 to 420 of whom were trained as code talkers.

In addition to fighting in the Pacific, the code talkers were employed in the European theatre. Thirteen Comanche code talkers were assigned to the 4th Infantry Division when it landed at Normandy in June 1944. Navajo code talkers continued to be used after World War II. The nature of their work, both during and after the war, delayed public knowledge of their wartime service.


Code of Honor: History of the Navajo Code Talkers in WWII

February 19 marked the 75th anniversary of the first battle of Iwo Jima, and we honored this day with a post on the Navajo Code Talkers and photos of the men in Iwo Jima. If you haven’t read that post yet, please check it out.

In this post, we thought we’d go into more detail on the Navajo Code Talkers and share our own experience where we actually met one of these men back in 2010.

History of the Navajo Code Talkers in WWII

The Navajo Code Talkers were an elite group of men, recruited by a civilian named Phillip Johnston who was fluent in the rich and complex Navajo language, and who saw its potential for the development of an indecipherable code. In 1942, the “original 29” — as the first group of recruits reverently came to be known — began development of a code that started as 200 terms and was expanded to 600 by war’s end. These soldiers were sent to Marine divisions stationed in the Pacific and, during the first 48 hours of the Battle of Iwo Jima, they coded over 600 transmissions with impeccable accuracy and speed unmatched by coding machines. They became “living codes” due to the fact that no part of the code was allowed to be written down, and they gained a reputation for their amazing abilities, their heroism and their patriotism. To this day, the code used by these men is considered to be one of the most successful ever created and it was pivotal to the Allies’ victory.

Because the code was classified until 1968, the Code Talkers returned home as unsung heroes following the war, and their contributions remained virtually unacknowledged. It was not until 2001 that they finally received meritorious recognition in the form of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Navajo Code Talker visits REDCOM in 2010

In 2010, REDCOM welcomed one of the Navajo Code Talkers, Mr. Bill Toledo, as a guest of honor to a training event we held for our government and military customers in Rochester, NY.

Bill Toledo was born in Torreon, N.M., on March 29, 1924. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 and attended the Navajo Code Talker School at Camp Elliot, Calif., where he learned to use the Navajo language to help outsmart the Japanese in World War II.

Toledo spent three years as a Code Talker and was involved in three combat landings: Bougainville in the British Solomon Islands in November 1943, Guam in the Marianas Islands in July 1944 and Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands in 1945.

On the island of Guam, while filling in as a messenger, he narrowly escaped sniper bullets by means of some quick footwork. Impressed by his moves, some of the Marines jokingly asked about Toledo’s football career before the war. Not all Marines were so jovial, though. On one occasion, while marching through the jungle, Toledo was mistaken for a Japanese soldier and taken prisoner. After being marched back to headquarters at gunpoint, he was assigned a bodyguard to avoid future misunderstandings.

Mr. Toledo passed away in 2016 at the age of 92, but we are honored to have met him and listened to him share his story with us.

Remembering Iwo Jima

The battle for control of Iwo Jima ultimately lasted 36 days. 5,931 Marines were killed in action, which is twice the number of Marines killed in all of World War One. An additional 209 deaths occurred among the Navy corpsmen and surgeons assigned to the Marines. The Fifth Fleet and participating U.S. Army and Army Air Corps units suffered other fatalities during the battle. The fatalities could have been far worse, however, without the help of the Navajo Code Talkers and their unbreakable code.

75 years later, as REDCOM works on securing the communications for our warfighters today, we honor the sacrifices made by the Marines and the Navajo Code Talkers.


Navajo Code Talkers Video

When the Navajo were first introduced many of the military leaders were skeptical. After a few demonstrations most of the commanders recognized and appreciated the importance and potential of the code.

From 1942 to 1945 the Navajo Code Talkers took part in many battles in the Pacific, they weren’t just communicators but also regular soldiers. One big problem the Navajo had was that they were often mistaken for Japanese soldiers and were almost shot many times because of this. Due to the frequency of these mistakes some commanders even assigned bodyguards to each of the Navajo Code Talkers.

The Navajo played a huge role in the success of the Allies in the Pacific, the war ended and the code remained a mystery to the enemy code breakers.


Navajo Code Talkers in World War Two

The Navajo ‘code talkers’ of the U.S. Marine Corps are fairly well known for their role in the Pacific theater, but far less has been published about the army program, which began with Choctaws in World War I.

By 1944 German intelligence personnel were fluent in English, French, and other European languages, permitting the Wehrmacht to discern Allied plans by listening to radio or field telephone transmissions. Consequently, the U.S. Army enlisted American Indians as field communication specialists, rightly concluding that no German could understand a Native American language.

The Army Signal Corps began the program with twenty-one Comanches at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1941. They devised a hundred-word dictionary of military terms, including ‘‘two-star chief ’’ for major general, ‘‘eagle’’ for colonel, ‘‘turtle’’ for tank, ‘‘sewing machine’’ for machine gun, and ‘‘pregnant airplane’’ for bomber. The main beneficiary of the code talkers’ unique ability was the Fourth Infantry Division, which assigned two Comanche soldiers to each regiment with others at division headquarters. Subsequently other code talkers joined the army program from the Chippewa, Fox, Hopi, Oneida, and Sac tribes.

Some twenty-five thousand American Indians served in the armed forces during World War II, receiving six Medals of Honor, fifty-one Silver Stars, and forty-seven Bronze Stars.

In 1989 the French government recognized the contribution of U.S. Army code talkers to the Normandy campaign.

You can also buy the book by clicking on the buttons to the left.


Code Talkers

All the services, like the army, and divisions and companies, and battalions, regiments . . . we just gave them clan names. Airplanes, we named after birds . . . like the buzzard is bomber, and the hawk is a dive bomber, and the patrol plane is a crow, and the hummingbird is the fighter.

During World Wars I and II, hundreds of Native American servicemen from more than twenty tribes used their Indigenous languages to send secret, coded messages enemies could never break. Known as code talkers, these men helped U.S. forces achieve military victory in some of the greatest battles of the twentieth century.

Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Indiana University

Choctaw telephone squad, returned from fighting in World War I. Camp Merritt, New Jersey, June 7, 1919. From left: Corporal Solomon Bond Louis, Private Mitchell Bobb, Corporal James Edwards, Corporal Calvin Wilson, Private Joseph (James) Davenport, Captain Elijah W. Horner.

In addition to Choctaw language speakers, Ho-Chunks, Eastern Cherokees, Comanches, Cheyennes, Yankton Sioux, and Osages were among the Native men who served as code talkers during World War I.

Ultimately, approximately 534 American Indian code talkers were deployed in World War II. The U.S. Marine Corps, which operated the largest code-talking program, sent approximately 420 Diné (Navajo) language speakers to help win the war in the Pacific. In Europe, Comanche code talkers participated in the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France as well as many of the major campaigns that crushed the Third Reich.

State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa

Meskwaki code talkers, February 1941. Top, left to right: Judie Wayne Wabaunasee, Melvin Twin, Dewey Roberts Sr., Mike Wayne Wabaunasee Bottom: Edward Benson, Frank Jonas Sanache Sr., Willard Sanache, Dewey Youngbear. The men were assigned to the 168th Infantry, 34th Red Bull Division and were sent to North Africa, where they participated in the attacks on Italy under heavy shelling. Three of the men were captured and confined to Italian and German prison camps.

Consequently, in 1940 and 1941, the army recruited Comanche, Meskwaki, Chippewa, and Oneida language speakers to train as code talkers they later added eight Hopi speakers. In April 1942, the Marine Corps trained twenty-nine Navajo men in combat and radio communications. They went on to serve as the foundation of the largest code-talking program in the military.

National Archives photo no. 127-MN-69889-B

Navajo code talkers Corporal Henry Bahe Jr. and Private First Class George H. Kirk. Bougainville, South Pacific, December 1943.

Dispersed across six marine divisions fighting in the Pacific, the Navajo radiomen saw action in many pivotal battles, including Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Tarawa, Makin, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

The first Native code talkers served during World War I, using tribal languages to transmit messages that German eavesdroppers found impossible to decipher. The code talkers of 1918 made a lasting impression on the U.S. military.

Courtesy of the Oklahoma State Senate

Wayne Cooper, Indian Code Talkers, 2000. Oil on canvas.

The painting depicts code talker Charles Chibitty (Comanche) after landing at Utah Beach during World War II.


Unbreakable Code – The Pivotal Role of Navajo Code Talkers in WWII

The Second World War brought with it a surge of interest and development in the field of cryptography.

It proved vital in many aspects of the conflict to have safe channels of communication, as surprise was key in organizing offensives which would often involve hundreds of thousands of people.

While designing the codes was an unprecedented effort, both sides also worked tirelessly to intercept and decipher their enemy’s messages in order to gain the upper hand.

Navajo code talkers, Saipan, June 1944.

When the United States entered the war in the Pacific, they were met with a number of issues. One of these was that the English language proved unsafe to be used in coding. Most Japanese cryptographers were educated in the United States and were well prepared for code-cracking once the war escalated, easily intercepting and decoding American radio-transmitted orders and messages.

While figuring out the alternative, the United States Marine Corps received a proposition from one Phillip Johnston, a civil engineer, who claimed to have a solution for their problems.

Johnston was a son of missionaries who grew up with the Navajo people in Arizona, becoming one of the few outsiders who actually spoke the language of the tribe.

Bill Toledo, Robert Walley, and Alfred Newman, World War II Navajo code talker veterans, pose for a photo at the Luke Air Force Base exchange. The three veterans visited Luke to educate the public about the Navajo Code Talkers and their role in WWII. Photo by U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Grace Lee

Thus, when the war broke out, he came up with the idea of using the Navajo language in code as it was largely unknown to anyone outside of the reservations.

After a successful demonstration in which four Navajo dockworkers participated as code talkers, the idea was put into consideration.

This actually wasn’t the first time that the U.S. turned to Native Americans for help regarding coded messages. During the last few months of World War I, this was common practice for soldiers of Cherokee and Choctaw origin, who translated messages of high importance into their native tongue to preserve their secrecy in case they fell into enemy hands.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Henry Bake and George Kirk, December 1943. Photo by U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense

In the years leading up to WWII, Germany financed a number of studies related to various Native American dialects and were more or less familiar with languages spoken by most of the tribes.

However, according to Marine Corps Major General Clayton B. Vogel who endorsed Johnston’s idea, Navajo people were never penetrated by nosy German scholars. In addition, the language had no alphabet in 1942 and existed only in its oral form, making it impossible for outsiders to master.

Therefore, the language could very well function as an unbreakable code.

Chester Nez during World War II.

The success of the demonstration led to the recruitment of 200 Navajo men into the United States Marine Corps and their subsequent training in the field of cryptography.

Chester Nez was among the first to join the experimental unit of 29 men who were responsible for establishing the code using Navajo words.

The language itself had very little military terms, which meant that suitable replacements needed to be used in order to transmit precise messages and avoid misunderstandings.

For example, a submarine was referred to as “a metal fish” and a dive bomber was called “chickenhawk.” Furthermore, new words were devised for verbs such as capture, escape, entrench, flank, halt, and target.

Navajo Code Talkers Peter Macdonald (left) and Roy Hawthorne participated in a ceremony November 10, 2010, at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. to pay tribute to veterans and to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. (U.S. Air Force photo)

During the course of the war, around 400 Navajo men would be recruited, as the code proved successful beyond anyone’s imagination. In fact, it became the only oral military code that has never been broken.

Participating in all major campaigns from 1942 to 1945, from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima, the Navajo code talkers would develop over time a complex system of ciphers which provided the U.S. Marine Corps the edge they needed in order to achieve victory against the Japanese.

Nez, who was raised in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, was surprised to learn that the language which was suppressed during his education now took a central role in the fight for the future of the United States.

Code Talkers Monument Ocala, Florida Memorial Park Photo by Mlpearc CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2002, he recalled his experience in an interview for USA Today one year after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, handed to him and other surviving code talkers by President George W. Bush.

“All those years, telling you not to speak Navajo, and then to turn around and ask us for help with that same language… It still kind of bothers me.”

Although the role of Navajo proved pivotal, especially in Iwo Jima, Native American soldiers still suffered discrimination on the home front. After the war, they were obliged to keep silent about their actions, for the code was categorized as top secret.

Until 1968, the Navajo code talkers weren’t allowed to mention their contribution to the war and were largely neglected as veterans.

However, their efforts are today fully recognized and the significance of the Navajo code remains engraved in history as one of the most important factors which ensured the Allied victory in the Pacific.


Watch the video: Navajo Code Talkers of World War II 2018. Trailer. Teddy Draper. Albert Smith. Sam Tso