Today is National Navajo Code Talkers Day, first celebrated on August 14, 1982, forty years after the Code Talkers project started and 14 years after it was declassified. In 1942, the United States was fighting World War II in the Pacific, and needed an unbreakable code for passing messages about operations, especially battle operations. The son of a missionary who had grown up in the Navajo Nation, Philip Johnston, suggested to the Marines that Diné Bizaad (Navajo language) be used as a code, after he heard of this need.
A number of Navajos in New Mexico and Arizona volunteered with the Marines. For the project’s pilot, Marines recruited Navajos at a high school in Tuba City, Arizona. In May 1942, the pilot group of 29 recruited Navajos
arrived at Camp Elliott . Chester Nez, one of the original code talkers, recalled that he found it confusing that he was being encouraged to use his language by the United States when he had been punished for using his native language at boarding school. However, he and many of the code talkers were proud of their contribution to their country and very proud of the visibility of their language.
As complex as the Navajo language is, the code talkers further encrypted the code by creating a system of word substitution and words for letters during their weeks of training at Camp Pendleton, using common Navajo words. For example, the word for “bomb” was “Ayęęzhii” (eggs), and the word for America was “nehemah” (our mother). For place names, they would spell out the word, using a Navajo word to represent the letter; “the island Tarawa would be transmitted as “turkey-ant-rabbit-ant-weasel-ant.” In Navajo, the words would be pronounced “Than-zie, wol-la-chee, gah, wol-lo-chee, gloe-ih, wol-la-chee. To avoid repetition, which could make the code penetrable, letters carried multiple terms.” After creating the codebook, they then had to memorize it. Their code was so efficient that they could transmit a message in two and a half minutes that would take another Marine 30 minutes to transmit. They participated in every major Pacific Island operation and during the invasion of Iwo Jima, six Navajo Code Talkers operated round the clock, transmitting more than 800 messages without error. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
The code was never cracked by the Japanese; it is the only oral code in history never broken. Chester Nez said, “The Japanese tried, but they couldn’t decipher it. Not even another Navajo could decipher it if he wasn’t a code talker.”
On this 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, although it barely begins to express our gratitude, Ahé’hee to the code talkers and their families for their service.
For more sources on Indigenous law, see the Indigenous Law web archive, where new resources are added monthly.
Veteran’s History Project. Navajo Code Talker’s Project.
D810.C88 Code talker / Chester Nez, with Judith Schiess Avila.
D810.C88 B77 2018 Chester Nez and the unbreakable code : a Navajo code talker’s story / Joseph Bruchac, pictures by Liz Amini-Holmes.