Code Talkers

As the battle for Iwo Jima raged all around us, our voices held it together.

– Joseph Bruchac, Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two

Who were the Navajo Code Talkers and what did they do?

In 1942, 29 Navajo marines (known as ‘the Original 29’) encrypted their Native language to provide fast and secure communications during World War II. They were commended for their skill, speed, and accuracy. The ‘Original 29’ and nearly 400 other Navajo Code Talkers are credited with helping the United States win World War II.

Major Howard Connor had 6 Navajo Code Talkers working 24/7 during the first two days of the Battle of Iwo Jima. They sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor stated, “Were it not for the Navajo, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” ¹

Did other Tribes serve as Code Talkers?

Members of the Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi, and Cherokee Tribes served in the US Army as Code Talkers during World War 1. In the early 1940s, WWI veteran Philip Johnston recalled the value of these Code Talkers and their languages. He had been raised on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary and was one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently.¹

How was the Navajo Code developed?

Johnston knew of the military’s search for a code that could withstand all attempts to decipher it. He believed the Navajo language was the answer because it is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. “It’s syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest.” ¹

After reviewing the language, the Marines recruited the entire 382nd Platoon to develop and memorize the Navajo-coded language.

“This major took us into a great big room, and he said, “You guys are going to have to make up a code in your own Native language,” that’s all he said. He left, closed the door behind him, and locked the door. We didn’t know what to think, you know? What does he mean by making a code in our own language? We sat there for about three- or four-minutes thinking, how are we going to develop this code?” – Chester Nez, ‘Original 29’ Navajo Code Talker

Using the rare and complex Navajo language was not the only reason this code was unbreakable. It was also encrypted with special codes within that language, meaning an average Navajo speaker would not be able to understand the messages if they heard them.

The ‘Original 29’ assigned Navajo words to represent about 450 frequently used military terms that did not exist in the Navajo language.¹

A few examples included:
“besh- lo” (iron fish) meant “submarine”
“dah-he- tih-hi” (hummingbird) meant “fighter plane”
“debeh-li-zine” (black street) meant “squad.” ¹

For military terms that were not initially assigned a Navajo word, the Code Talkers would spell them out similar to the NATO phonetic alphabet. For example, one way to say the word “Navy” in Navajo code would be “tsah (Needle) wol-la-chee (Ant) ah-keh-di- glini (Victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (Yucca).” ¹

Did the Navajo Code Talkers receive recognition
for their efforts?

³³For years after WWII, many Americans did not know about the Code Talkers’ critical contributions. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Navajo Code Talker operation was declassified, and the Code Talkers could honestly and openly share all they had done. ³

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed August 14th National Navajo Code Talkers Day, “a day dedicated to all members of the Navajo Nation and to all Native Americans who gave of their special talents and lives so that others might live.”

In 2001, Congress and President Bush awarded the ‘Original 29’ Navajo Code Talkers gold Congressional Medals for their contributions to the United States Armed Forces as radio operators during World War II. And in 2008, Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act, honoring Code Talkers from all Tribes.⁵

Today, there are a few Code Talkers left to thank in person. As of July 2022, only 3 Navajo Code Talkers remain, Peter MacDonald, John Kinsel Sr., and Thomas Begay.⁴ While few are still with us, their legacy and stories live on in a number of museum exhibits, articles, videos, interviews, and stories passed down by their families. We appreciate their service and culture, knowing our world could have been much different if not for their sacrifices.


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