The Code Talkers of WWII

November is Native American Heritage month and the Navy is celebrating the achievements of American Indians and Alaskan natives within its ranks. As of June 2018, they make up 2.3% of the Navy’s total force. In World War II, 44,000 served in the armed forces, 15,000 in Korea and more than 42,000 in Vietnam. One of the most notable stories about their contributions is that of the code talkers in World War II. These code talkers and their code remained secret until 1968.
During the height of the war in the Pacific, Japanese troops were intercepting messages sent by American forces. It wasn’t until after the war that the Japanese admitted that they were unable to break the Navajo code used by the Marine Corps. Navajo code talkers took part in every major assault that the Marines conducted in the Pacific. The idea to use native code talkers came from a son of a missionary to the Navajos, Philip Johnston. Raised on a Navajo reservation, he was one of a few outside of the tribe who spoke the language fluently. While many believe that the Navajo code talkers were the first, Johnston knew of Native American languages used during World War I to encode messages.
Why was the Navajo code so unbreakable? Its syntax and dialects make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive training and exposure. There is no alphabet or symbols and at the start of WWII, less than 30 non-Navajos could understand the language. Within two weeks of being given permission to do a trial run, Johnston had assembled four Navajos to meet his superiors to perform a demonstration. Johnston told his commanding officers that despite many Navajo’s to recruit, their reservation was isolated and largely inaccessible land. Their language was preserved with theme truly unbreakable to outsiders. According to archives.gov, prior to the demonstration on February 28, 1942,” General Vogel had installed a telephone connection between two offices and had written out six messages that were typical of those sent during combat. One of those messages read, ‘Enemy expected to make tank and dive bomber attack at dawn.’ The Navajos transmitted the message almost verbatim.” A week later, Vogel recommended the initial recruitment of two hundred Navajos for the Pacific Fleet. Vogel was impressed by the fact that the language was completely unintelligible by other tribes and the larger public. He was also impressed by the fact that it was also one of the few tribes that had not been infiltrated by Germany posing as students and art dealers.

Figure 1 First 29 Navajo U.S. Marine Corps code-talker recruits being sworn in at Fort Wingate, NM, in 1942. (National Archives Identifier) 295175
Read more: http://www.digitaljournal.com/news/world/last-of-original-group-of-navajo-code-talkers-dies/article/385626#ixzz5WCzRzEHT

The Navajo code talkers were required to attend basic training and meet strict linguistic qualifications in English and Navajo. On May 5, 1942, the first twenty-nine Navajos arrived in San Diego for basic training. After training, they moved to Fleet Marine Training Center at Camp Elliott where the first Navajo code was created. The code was 211 words- Navajo terms that were given new military meanings. There was also a system that signified the twenty-six letters of English alphabet. The program would go on to be so successful that an additional two hundred Navajos were recruited. As the program grew, so did the code. The original 211 vocabulary would eventually expand to 411. Into 1943, an additional 303 Navajos were recruited at 50 men a month for six months. The primary strength of the code talkers was the amount of secrecy and versatility with which they could be used. Capt. Ralph J. Sturkey called the code “the simplest, fastest, and most reliable means.” It is estimated that between 375 and 420 Navajos served as code talkers. Official Marine Corps records contain very few battle reports related to the code talkers, due in part of keeping their code secret. The code talkers served in all six Marine divisions earning praise for their work in the Solomons and the Marianas and on Peleliu. Operations in Iwo Jima were completely directed by Navajo Code. Fifth Marine Division Signal Officer Major Howard Conner said that “During the two days that followed the initial landings I had six Navajo radio nets working around the clock…They sent and received over 800 messages without an error. Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima.”

Figure 2 President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to Navajo code talkers on July 26, 2001. (White House Photo Office)

After the war, the Navajo code talkers went unrecognized. Unlike other veterans, they returned home on buses without parades and were sworn to secrecy in case the Navajo code was ever to be needed again. In 1992, an exhibit was created at the Pentagon in order to recognize the contributions of code talkers. Thirty-five code talkers attended the dedication of the exhibit which includes photographs, equipment, and the original code. In the summer of 2001, twenty-nine Navajo code talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal with others receiving the Congressional Silver Medal. A large committee from the Navajo nation came to support those who were receiving the awards. Many of the recipients were wearing their Navajo Code Talkers Association regalia. Five of the original twenty- nine code talkers were still alive at the time of the ceremony. Family members represented those that had already passed. Those present were Allen June, Lloyd Oliver, Chester Nez, and John Brown, Jr. Members of Congress shared their gratitude to the code talkers with President Bush saying that these men “who, in a desperate hour, gave their country a service only they could five.”

Excerpts from the Navajo Code, Part 1; Folder 6, Box 5; History and Museums Division; Records Relating to Public Affairs; USMC Reserve and Historical Studies, 1942 – 1988; “C” Course to Wash. Daily News; Records of the US Marine Corps, Record Group 127, National Archives at College Park.

English Letter   Navaho Word        Meaning
A                       Wol-la-chee            Ant
B                        Shush                     Bear
C                       Moasi                       cat
D                          Be                         Deer
E                         Dzeh                        Elk
F                        Ma-e                        Fox
G                      Klizzie                       Goat
H                       Lin                           Horse
I                         Tkin                          Ice
J                      Tkele-cho-gi            Jackass
K                     Klizzie-yazzie              Kid
L                     Dibeh-yazzie             Lamb
M                  Na-as-tso-si               Mouse
N                   Nesh-chee                   Nut
O                   Ne-ahs-jah                  Owl
P                     Bi-so-dih                     Pig
Q                    Ca-yeilth                   Quiver
R                       Gah                         Rabbit
S                     Dibeh                        Sheep
T                    Than-zie                     Turkey
U                   No-da-ih                      Ute
V               A-keh-di-glini                Victor
W                Gloe-ih                        Weasel
X                Al-an-as-dzoh                Cross
Y                   Tsah-as-zih                 Yucca
Z                Besh-do-gliz                   Zinc

English Word           Navaho Word          Meaning
Corps                           Din-neh-ih                Clan
Switchboard               Ya-ih-e-tih-ih            Central
Dive Bomber               Gini Chicken             Hawk
Torpedo Plane            Tas-chizzie               Swallow
Observation Plane        Me-as-jah                 Owl
Fighter plane               Da-he-tih-hi        Humming Bird
Bomber                           Jay-sho                Buzzard
Alaska                              Beh-hga            With-Winter
America                        Ne-he-Mah             Our Mother
Australia                       Cha-yes-desi            Rolled Hat
Germany                  Besh-be-cha-he            Iron Hat
Philippines                Ke-yah-da-na-lhe       Floating Land

 

 

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