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Navajo Code Talkers:
The Epic Story


How the Navajo Code Talkers helped win World War II

From Out West #14

By Chuck Woodbury, editor
Out West.

A unique effort by the Navajo helped win the war in the Pacific during World War II. The war erupted with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. During the early months in the Pacific, Japanese intelligence experts broke every code the United States devised for combat messages.

In any war situation, the rapid and accurate transmission of combat messages is essential. The Japanese, however, were learning in advance, the time and place of American attacks. Something had to be done fast to help the Americans communicate freely and secretly.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a group of 29 Navajo volunteers were recruited from their homeland. Little did they know the crucial role they would eventually play in helping win the war.

Philip Johnston, a former missionary’s son who once lived on the Navajo Reservation, was responsible for recruiting the Navajo. His plan was to devise a code utilizing the complex unwritten language of the Navajo. Knowing the complex syntax and intricate tonal qualities of the language, he convinced the Marines it would baffle the best of cryptographers. Johnston said the language could be used as the basis for a code to transmit vital information and battle plans.

With the help of the Navajo, the task of creating code terms was soon underway. Navajo words were selected to describe complex military equipment and operations. Where possible, words that had a logical association with the desired military term were selected. Thus the Navajo word for frog became the code word for amphibious, potato became grenade, egg became bomb and American became “nihima” (our mothers).

“Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” said Major Howard Conner, signal officer of the Fifth Marine Division at Iwo Jima. “During the first 48 hours, while we were landing and consolidating our shore positions, I had six Navajo radio networks operating around the clock. In that period alone, they sent and received over 800 messages without an error.”

The code was so successful that eventually more than 400 Navajo were recruited. The Japanese were completely baffled by the complicated code, and their master cryptographers never broke it.

Formal recognition of the Navajo Code Talkers came on June 28, 1969. The Fourth Marine Division honored the men with medallions commemorating their efforts. This began a series of recognitions that included proclamations from the states of Arizona and New Mexico. On July 28, 1982 the President of the United States signed a measure proclaiming August 14 as “National Navajo Code Talkers Day.”

Today, the surviving Navajo Code Talkers make their headquarters at the Gallup-McKinley County Chamber of Commerce. The Navajo Code Talker Room is open to the public; exhibits tell the fascinating story of these veterans. Another exhibit is located at the Burger King restaurant on the Navajo Reservation at Kayenta.

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