OPINION — Navajo code talkers helped win the wars

Published 2:53 pm Thursday, May 20, 2021

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Do you know what a code talker is?

If it wasn’t for the 2002 movie “Windtalkers” starring Nicholas Cage, Christian Slater and Adam Beach I would never have known who they were and their importance to securing our freedom. It prompted me to do more research on the subject. A code talker was a person hired by the military during wartime to use a little known language as a way of secret communication.

Code talking was first used in World War I. During World Wars I and II code talkers used their knowledge of Native American languages as a method to transmit coded messages.

There were about 400 to 500 Native Americans in The United States Marine Corps who secretly transmitted tactical messages via military telephone and radio utilizing codes based on their native languages. Improvements were made during WWII to expediency of encryption and decryption on the front lines.

During World War II there were two types of codes. For the first code each letter of the alphabet had a Navajo word used in messages that could be encoded and decoded substituting a cipher for the native word. In the second code direct translation from English into Navajo occurs. If there wasn’t a Navajo word to describe a military word, a description noun was used. For example, in Navajo the word for submarine would be iron fish. Moreover, bilingual Navajo speakers were specifically recruited by the U. S. Marine Corps to serve in the communication units in the Pacific Theater. 

It was fascinating to me the role of the Navajo in WWII which led me to gather a list of Navajo words that were used for names of things or situations involving tactical plans. In fact, a Los Angeles civil engineer named Philip Johnston proposed the use of Navajo language for code talking.

Johnston, a WWI veteran was the son of a missionary raised on a Navajo reservation and one of the few non-Navajo who could speak the language fluently. Huge numbers of these brave men enlisted after Pearl Harbor contributing greatly to the war effort.

The Navajo language was complex and unwritten and Johnston believed it could be used as an undecipherable code. With its various dialects it was hard to understand unless you had extensive experience and training in the language. In 1942 Philip coordinated a simulation demonstrating the quickness of the Navajo to transmit a three-line message; it took them 20 seconds versus a machine which took 30 minutes.

The first Navajo group created the code at Camp Pendleton. Expediency was key and therefore tactical terms were given uniquely descriptive words in Navajo. For instance, a destroyer was called a shark, a lieutenant colonel was silver oak leaf and buzzard-jeeshoo-was a bomber. Furthermore, a codebook was designed to teach new trainees and these codes were memorized practicing quick use under stressful situations.

At the Battle of Iwo Jima six Navajo code talkers under the command of Major Howard Connor 5th Marine Division received and sent more than 800 messages.

Their work was based on secrecy. After some Navajo were mistaken for Japanese and captured, a provision was implemented which sanctioned the elimination of code talkers if the mission was deemed endangered of being compromised but thankfully, it was not necessary. The Navajo code is the only spoken military code never deciphered.

Sadly, on June 4, 2014, the last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers Chester Nez died. Navajo code talker New Mexico State Senator John Pinto (elected in 1977) died on May 24, 2019.

Unfortunately, in my research no evidence was found of female Navajo code talkers. Even though it has taken more than 60 years these courageous and talented code talkers were finally recognized for their contributions.

President Bill Clinton on Dec. 21, 2000, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 World War II code talkers and Silver Medals to each person who were code talkers-about 300. In addition, on Nov. 15, 2008, the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 (was signed into law by President George W. Bush which recognized every Native American code talker who served in World War I and II with a Congressional Gold Medal.

We owe these heroic men gratitude for their contribution to winning the war. Other languages like Cherokee were also utilized.

Judy Moore is a museum guide living in Wyllliesburg and can be reached at v5agabond1@outlook.com.