The Navajo Code Talkers

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Podcast Transcript

Secrecy is a huge part of military success. You want to be able to communicate with your own forces without the enemy finding out what your plans are. 

As America entered World War II, they were in need of a method of communication that couldn’t be cracked by Germany or Japan. They found the answer they were looking for in the languages of Native Americans. 

Learn more about Navajo Code Talkers and the other Native American languages used in World War II, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The idea of using Native American languages as a form of military code didn’t begin in World War II.

It actually began in the First World War.

The Germans during World War I had no problem understanding English, and they had managed to break every American code. 

An American Army officer, ??Colonel Alfred Wainwright Bloor of the 142 Infantry, had several members of the Choctaw Nation in his unit. One day he overheard them talking to each other in the Choctaw Language. He realized that he couldn’t understand what they were saying, and if he couldn’t understand, then the Germans probably couldn’t understand either. 

He gathered up all of the Choctaw soldiers and told them of his idea, and they were on board. They developed a code based on the Choctaw language and then distributed the Choctaw speakers so there was one in each company. 

On October 26, 1918, just two weeks before the war ended, they managed to execute a withdrawal of two companies in the second battalion. The Germans didn’t suspect a thing.

A German officer who was captured later confessed that they had no clue what the Choctaw speakers were saying, and wiretaps on the American phone lines didn’t give them any advantage. 

The experiment of using Choctaw speakers during World War I was a success, but it was very limited. The program didn’t get started until the last month of the war, so there wasn’t much opportunity to use it.

The idea to use Native American languages during the Second World War came up quite early in the American involvement in the conflict. A man by the name of ??Philip Johnston who lived in Los Angeles came up with the idea.

Johnston had grown up in a missionary family who lived in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. He learned the Navajo language as a child when he played with other children who spoke the language. 

Johnston realized that Navajo might make a great basis for a military code. 

Navajo had a lot going for it. For starters, it is a fairly complex language. It has a very complex grammar and sentence structure. 

Second, Navajo can’t be understood by any other Native American groups. Even the closest related Native languages can’t understand Navajo.

Third, Navajo wasn’t well studied or known beyond the Navajo Nation. It was estimated that fewer than 30 non-Navajo people in the world knew the Navajo language and none of those people were Japanese.

Finally, at the time Navajo wasn’t a written language, so there were no books that could be used to help decipher the language. 

Johnston, who was a civilian, pitched the idea to the US Marine Corps and a demonstration was held to show how Navajo would work in the field for transmitted coded orders. 

The Navajo speakers were able to transmit a three-line message in 20 seconds. The competing code machine took 30 minutes. 

Based on the demonstration, the Marine Corps agreed to go ahead with a pilot program. 29 Navajo recruits hopped on a bus in Fort Defiance, Arizona, and traveled to basic training in San Diego for eight weeks. They graduated as the first all Navajo platoon in Marine History.

From there they immediately went to Camp Elliot in San Diego where they began the work of creating a code based on Navajo. 

The code talkers didn’t speak conversational Navajo during combat. They used a code that was based on Navajo. 

The first part of the code was creating words that represented the letters of the alphabet. They picked English words that started with that letter of the alphabet but used the Navajo words instead. 

For example, for the letter A, they used three different words: ant, apple, and ax. The Navajo words for them would be WOL-LA-CHEE for ant, BE-LA-SANA for apple, and TSE-NILL for ax.

It also would have been time-consuming to spell out everything, so they developed several hundred words for commonly used terms and phrases which would be used, including military ranks, ships, airplanes, and weapons.

For example, the Navajo code for submarine was BESH-LO which means “iron fish”. The word for bomber was the Navajo word for buzzard and the word for a colonel was the word for “silver eagle”. 

This first group of 29 code talkers developed a book that would be used by subsequent code talkers who would go through the program. However, the book was never allowed to leave the base. Everyone who graduated from the program had to memorize everything. 

The end result was that even if a native Navajo speaker were to overhear two code talkers speaking, they would only hear a collection of words that wouldn’t make sense because they weren’t actual sentences. 

The decision was made to only use the Navajo code talkers in the Pacific Theater. 

While in the Pacific, they proved vital in almost every major battle. At Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Saipan the Navajo Code Talkers were vital in every battle. 

At Iwo Jima, six Code Talkers worked non-stop for over 48 hours, transmitting 800 messages. Major Howard Connor head of the 5th Marine Division Signal Corp said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

Eventually, each of the code talkers had to be assigned a personal guard. The initial reason for the guard was to protect the code talkers from other American soldiers. There were several cases where they were thought to be Japanese spies. 

The secondary reason for the guards was to ensure that the code talkers never fell into enemy hands. Their instructions were to shoot the code talkers rather than let them be captured, but thankfully that never happened. 

In total there were over 400 Navajo who served as code talkers. They continued to be used during the Korean Conflict and the program was eventually phased out in the early 1960s.  During that time, the entire program was considered secret and none of the code talkers could talk about their service in the war. 

The program was finally declassified in 1968. 

Recognition of the code talkers was belated but eventually acknowledged. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan named August 14, 1982, as Navajo Code Talkers Day and issued the code talkers a Certificate of Recognition.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law that awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 code talkers and Silver Medals to the other code talkers.  Arizona has created a state holiday, and there are plans for the creation of a code talker museum.

As of the day I am recording this, there are only four surviving Navajo code talkers, all of which are in their 90s. 

Before I close, I should note that while the Navajo code talkers were the largest and best-known group of code talkers from World War II, they were not the only tribe that had code talkers. 

There were 14 Native American languages used as code talkers during the war by both Americans and Canadians, including Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Tlingit, Hopi, Cree, and Crow.

Notably, 14 Comanche code talkers were used on D-Day during the invasion of Normandy. In 1989 they were awarded the rank of  Chevalier of the National Order of Merit in France.

All of the codes based on other native American languages were designed on the system developed by the Navajo. 

In 2008, code talkers from both world wars and from every native American tribe were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Computers and advanced cryptography have rendered code talkers obsolete. It is now possible to easily communicate without fear of enemy interception.

Nonetheless, while it was in use, the Native American code talkers had the only military code never to have been broken.