The NavajoCode Talkers

A Secret World War II Memorandum

 

Adam Jevec and Lee Ann Potter

Maintaining secrecy, particularly during wartime, is vital to the national security of every country. Accomplishing this on the homefront during World War II was one objective of the Office of War Information. The office created propaganda posters that alerted American citizens to the presence of enemy spies and saboteurs lurking below the surface of American society. On the battlefield, maintaining military secrecy went far beyond poster campaigns because secrecy was essential for victory, and breaking enemy codes was necessary to gain the advantage and shorten the war.

The ability to send and receive codes without the risk of the enemy deciphering the transmission was the most desirable end result of military secrecy. This ability, however, often required hours of encrypting and decrypting the code to ensure the highest security of the message. During World War II, the U.S. Marine Corps, in an effort to find quicker and more secure ways to send and receive code, enlisted Navajos as “code talkers.”

Philip Johnston was the initiator of the Marine Corps’ program to enlist and train Navajos as messengers. Although Johnston was not a Navajo, he grew up on a Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary and became familiar with the people and their language. Johnston was also a World War I veteran and knew about the military’s desire to send and receive messages in an unbreakable code. According to a 1970 interview with Johnston and a paper he wrote titled “Indian Jargon Won Our Battles,” he hit upon the idea of enlisting Navajos as signalmen early in 1942 when he read a newspaper story about the Army’s use of several Native Americans during training maneuvers with an armored division in Louisiana. The article stated that the Army included Native Americans during these maneuvers on the basis of the experiences of the Canadian Army in World War I, when the Native Americans acted as signalmen against the Germans to send secure messages about shortages of supplies or ammunition.

The Army’s program, however, was never given the priority that the U.S. Marine Corps assigned to Johnston’s idea in 1942. According to Johnston, the day after he read the article, he went to the Naval Office in Los Angeles, California, and told them the story. Believing it had possibilities, the office sent Johnston to the headquarters of the Eleventh Naval District in San Diego, which was convinced that if Johnston’s idea could be accomplished, it would be a “marvelous thing,” and which sent Johnston on to Camp Elliot in San Diego to meet Major James E. Jones. It took Johnston some time to convince Major Jones about the potential for using a Native American code, but after Johnston spoke a few Navajo words to the baffled major, Jones decided to give Johnston’s idea a trial run with actual Navajos. Within two weeks, Johnston assembled four Navajos in the Los Angeles area and arranged to meet Major Jones back at Camp Elliot on February 27, 1942, with the demonstration to occur the next day.

Prior to this return to Camp Elliot, Johnston sent a preliminary report to Major Jones and Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, that explained the many reasons he believed that the Navajo offered the best possibility for recruitment as signalmen. Included in the report was a description of Johnston’s own knowledge of the Navajo gained through his childhood experiences, general background information on the status of Native American tribes that gave population statistics, and a specific explanation of the potential of the Navajo language as a military code. It stressed the complexity of the Navajo language and the fact that it remained mostly “‘unwritten’ because an alphabet or other symbols of purely native origin” did not exist, with the exception of adaptations by American scholars, anthropologists, and Franciscan Fathers, who compiled a Navajo dictionary. Furthermore, the report noted that the languages of Native American tribes varied so significantly that one group of Native Americans could not understand another’s language.

Johnston’s proposal also discussed how fluency in reading Navajo could be obtained only by those “individuals who are first highly educated in English, and who, in turn, have made a profound study of Navajo, both in spoken and written form.” Besides himself, Johnston alleged that very few people in the world could understand the Navajo language. Johnston’s report concluded by recommending the Navajo, Sioux, Chippewa, and Pima-Papago as tribes that were available for recruitment based on the size of their population. Because of Johnston’s intimate knowledge of the Navajo reservation, its people, and the Navajo language—and because the Navajo had the largest population of Native Americans—he believed that they offered the best possibility for recruitment. Johnston thought that the tribe’s seclusion made the Navajo a culturally and linguistically autonomous people compared with other native groups. The Navajo reservation, which was located largely in Arizona but which also comprised portions of New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, totaled an area of 25,000 square miles of isolated and sparsely populated land that was largely inaccessible due to unimproved roads and trails.

Johnston also believed that many Navajos had been given an education that adequately prepared them for jobs outside their traditional life-styles. In the years prior to 1942, Navajo children attended government-established schools on the reservation that taught English grammar. A large number of them also attended schools outside of the reservation that taught native arts and crafts and offered classes in trades and occupations. With proper training, Johnston was sure that Navajos who fit the age and education requirements for military service could be taught to transmit messages in their native language.

On February 28, 1942, the four Navajos assisted Johnston in demonstrating his idea. Prior to the demonstration, 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 managed to transmit the message almost verbatim: “Enemy tank dive bomber expected to attack this morning.” The remaining messages were translated with similar proficiency, which duly impressed General Vogel. A week later, on March 6, 1942, Vogel wrote a letter to the U.S. Marine Corps commandant recommending the initial recruitment of two hundred Navajos for the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet. The letter is featured with this article.

After detailing the nature of the demonstration and its success, Vogel outlined in his letter the advantages, as he saw them, to Johnston’s proposal. Vogel noted that the Navajo dialect was regarded as “completely unintelligible” to other tribes, and that only twenty-eight Americans were thought to possess a more than superficial knowledge of the language. In addition, Vogel noted that the Navajo was the only tribe, according to Johnston, that had not yet been infiltrated by Germans posing as students, art dealers, and anthropologists in order to study the various tribal dialects of American Indians. Interestingly, this point was to become somewhat moot, as the code talkers were never deployed on the European front, the Marine Corps operations being primarily situated in the Pacific Theater. But the statement nevertheless revealed the priorities of Vogel and the military on the whole—to maintain in their communications the utmost secrecy and security.

Although Voge#146;s letter was firm in its support, it nevertheless contained allusions to some of the problems that would trouble the project as it progressed. Prior to the demonstration, the Navajo demonstrators, Vogel stated, were allowed a few minutes to “improvise” words for military terminology not in the Navajo vocabulary. While the demonstration itself was a success, over the next year, the development of a consistent and universally applicable Navajo code for the countless military terms would prove to be a major obstacle. Vogel also stated, on the basis of Johnston’s assurances, that one thousand Navajos with the necessary qualifications could be found for the project. When the program eventually expanded, however, meeting such expectations proved difficult.

While these concerns were not to manifest themselves for some time, others found more immediate reasons to object. One colonel stated that the supposed primary advantage of the code talkers over the encrypted system—speed—was actually of little benefit because in field action situations, when speed was of the essence, messages were usually sent verbatim without code because the enemy would not have time to intercept them and respond. The colonel also was reluctant to endorse a proposal that would have “combat directing officers depending on an order being translated” in a language that they themselves had no chance of understanding.

Despite these objections, the initial recruitment of code talkers was approved, with the stipulation that the Navajos meet the normally required qualifications for enlistment, undergo the same seven-week basic training as any other recruit, and meet strict linguistic qualifications in English and Navajo, qualifications not easily attained. On May 5, 1942, the first 29 Navajos arrived at the Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, for basic training, where they were trained in the standard procedures of the military and in weapons use. Afterward, they moved to Fleet Marine Force Training Center at Camp Elliott, where they received special courses in the transmission of messages and instruction in radio operation.

It was also at Camp Elliott that the initial recruits, along with communications personnel, designed the first Navajo code. This code consisted of 211 words, most of which were Navajo terms that had been imbued with new, distinctly military meanings in order to compensate for the lack of military terminology in the Navajo vocabulary. For example, “fighter plane” was called “da-he-tih-hi,” which means “humming bird” in Navajo, and “dive bomber” was called “gini,” which means “chicken hawk.” In addition, the code talkers also designed a system that signified the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. For example, the letter A was “wol-la-chee,” which means “ant” in Navajo, and the letter E was “dzeh,” which means “elk.” Words that were not included in the 211 terms were spelled out using this alphabet (see Figure 1).

The Navajos soon demonstrated their ability to memorize the code and to send messages under adverse conditions similar to military action, successfully transmitting the code from planes, tanks, or fast-moving positions. The program was deemed so successful that an additional two hundred Navajos were recommended for recruitment as messengers on July 20, 1942. This prompted Philip Johnston to offer his services as a staff sergeant to aid in the development of the code talker program. On October 2, 1942, Johnston enlisted and began training his first class in November and spent the remainder of the war training additional Navajo recruits. After the new recruits went through the Marine Corps’ basic training course, they came to Johnston for what he termed an “extremely intensive” eight-week messenger training course.

As the code talker program grew, so did the development of the code. A cryptographer who monitored the code talkers’ transmissions concluded that the code might be broken because using the alphabet to spell out words not in the Navajos’ vocabulary produced too many repetitions. To alleviate this problem, the code talker alphabet grew from twenty-six to forty-four terms by creating alternatives for the most frequently repeated letters—E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L, and U. For example, in addition to designating “wol-la-chee,” meaning “ant,” for A, “be-la-sana” and “tse-nihl,” which meant “apple” and “axe,” respectively, were also designated for the letter A. The original 211 vocabulary terms were also expanded to 411.

By April 1943, the additional two hundred recruits had almost completed their training, while the initial recruits were attached to Marine Divisions in the South Pacific and performing communication and general Marine duties. The Marine Corps by this time had compiled recommendations of Marine Divisions in the field and had determined that the program should be continued and expanded further. According to the new proposal, an additional 303 Navajos were to be recruited at 50 men per month for six months.

The enlistment of additional Navajos was not a simple task, however, because many new recruits were not qualified. In addition, those Navajos who volunteered through Selective Service were often sent to other branches of the military. The Marine Corps attempted to alleviate this problem by reducing the quota to twenty-five men per month. It made arrangements with Selective Service to activate voluntary induction of Navajos, and even tried to transfer Navajos from the Army into the Marine Corps, but its goal still remained unattainable.

With the recruitment and training program for the code talkers facing curtailment on the homefront, the Navajo code talkers assigned to the South Pacific experienced their own varying degrees of success. The official Marine Corps records contain very few battle reports related to the Navajo code talkers, citing activity only at Guam, Palau, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima. Reports from Iwo Jima, typical of those related to code talkers from the front, highlight both the limitations and strengths of the program. One of the primary limitations was the aforementioned lack of available qualified Navajos to participate. Many offices, regiments, and battalions remained without the new recruits, which of course rendered communication in code between these offices and those with the code talkers impossible. Recommendations called for drastic increases in the number of recruits. The limited recruiting successes, however, made following through with these recommendations difficult.

Despite the development of unique military terms for the Navajo code, the lack of military terminology in the original Navajo vocabulary remained an obstacle, another limitation that became apparent in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Because Navajos had trained at different times and worked in different locales, the development of certain dialects and modified vocabularies was inevitable. As a consequence, dialects were different among the code talkers and were detrimental to effective communication between units. To offset this problem, officers frequently exchanged Navajos from one division into another to try to ensure that all code talkers used a standard code. Problems persisted, however, and after Iwo Jima it was recommended that the Navajos be “thoroughly trained in a standard Navajo military dictionary.” Quarterly training sessions were advised, in which messengers could review standard Navajo military code, as well as such duties as radio procedure and radio headings, to maintain a high degree of efficiency.

Even with these limitations, overall assessments from Iwo Jima and other battles showed that there was an interest to continue the development of Navajos as code talkers. The primary strengths of the code talkers was the amount of secrecy that they ensured and the versatility with which they could be used. When compared to other messengers, the Navajos provided a valuable line of communication by radio that was both secure and error-free. Captain Ralph J. Sturkey, in his Iwo Jima Battle Report, called the Navajo code the “the simplest, fastest, and most reliable means” available to transmit secret orders by radio and telephone circuits exposed to enemy wire-tapping. Captain Sturkey also wrote that the “full value of Navajo Talkers would not be appreciated until the Commander and Staff they are serving gains confidence in their ability.” In addition to functioning as messengers who provided a secure means of communication, the Navajos proved at Iwo Jima and other battles to be excellent general-duty Marines, useful in a variety of operations.

It is estimated that between 375 to 420 Navajos served as code talkers. The Navajo code talker program was highly classified throughout the war and remained so until 1968. Returning home on buses without parades or fanfare and sworn to secrecy about the existence of the code, the Navajo code talkers are only recently making their way into popular culture and mainstream American history. The “Honoring the Code Talkers Act,” introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico in April 2000 and signed into law December 21, 2000, called for recognition of the Navajo code talkers. During a ceremony at the U. S. Capitol on July 26, 2001, the first 29 soldiers received the Congressional Gold Medal. The Congressional Silver Medal will be presented to the remaining Navajos who later qualified to be code talkers. Senator Bingaman’s legislation is one attempt to answer the question of how the United States should document and remember the Navajo code talkers.

 

Teaching Activities

 

 

Adam Jevec is an archives technician and Lee Ann Potter is an education specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

 

Figure 1

Navajo Dictionary

 

English Letter Navajo 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 Ne-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