The Navajo Code Talkers

Hero code4

Jan 28, 2013 | By Taylor Welden

Let me set the stage.  It’s 1942.  You’re commander of the largest Allied Forces ever assembled to save the world from one of the most evil terrors the world has ever seen... the Axis, run by Mr. Adolf Hitler himself.  The fate of the world lies in a delicate balance and it can tip either direction based on the success or failure of a handful of key coordinated military strikes.

Oh, one more thing, no matter how hard you try to encrypt your messages to prevent the Nazis from intercepting them, they’re already ten steps ahead, having easily cracked every complex code you’ve ever sent.  With that advantage, they heavily fortify your next planned assault with a nightmarish amount of men and firepower, ready and waiting.  This all makes it quite difficult to follow Sun Tzu’s quotation, “let your plans be as dark as night, and when you move, strike like lightning”.  So, what do you do?

You turn to the one language so obscure that Hitler and the Germans can’t possibly translate.  One they've never even heard or heard of before.  A language that is only present on the rich red clay soil of the United States... the tongue of the Native Americans.  It’s actually not as simple as that either (of course).

The USMC employed members of the Choctaw tribes in World War I to send and receive radio messages to Allied Forces.  These soldiers are known as the “Choctaw code talkers”.  And Hitler was well aware of this group.  Between WWI and WWII, he sent over a team of approximately 30 undercover anthropologists to learn this language to give the Nazis one more advantage in warfare.  Though he was a bloodthirsty maniac, the guy was smart.  Now with Japan joining efforts against the Allies, another extremely intelligent force helped to make the Axis even more deadly than before.

It all starts with a Mr. Philip Johnston, a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles.  A pretty simple guy overall.  However, what makes Philip very unique, interesting and critical to this story is that he was raised on a Navajo reservation, the son of a missionary sent there.  He was one of the only non-Navajos on the reservation to speak the language perfectly.  He was also a veteran of WWI, giving him the military and tactical insight to bring up his idea to Major General Clayton B. Vogel.

Though his idea seemed a bit crazy at first, since the Nazis had already done their research on other Native American languages, he proved that the Navajo language specifically was much more complex than the others.  It was estimated that during the outbreak of WWII, only a handful of non-Navajos could barely understand this extremely difficult-to-learn language.  Those few were experts, having studied the language for years.  And they were able to speak and translate the language at a snail's pace because of its difficulty.

Philip had one other argument to bring to the table to support his idea, speed.  The native-tongued Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line message in 20 seconds, compared to the 30 minutes required by the machines at the time to decode an English message.  An untranslatable language, that was faster than anything the military had used since.  His pitch was promptly accepted.  And so, as they are known today, the Code Talkers were born.

There was one minor drawback.  The Navajos didn’t have words for “armored tanks” or “machine guns”, so common words were used as replacements for these words that had no place in their culture.  Grenade translated to potato, tank to turtle, bomb to egg, submarine to iron fish, Hitler to crazy white man, and so on.  Now to make it more difficult for the enemy, the method in which the messages were sent was via a string of what seemed to be unrelated Navajo words.  The code talker on the receiving end would take that string of Navajo words, translate it into English, then take the first letter of those equivalent English words to spell out one English word, which was the end message.

For example, one way to say the word "Navy" in Navajo code would be "tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)."  Complex, eh?  Imagine there are mortars exploding within feet of your position and your message needs to be sent 5 minutes ago, and perfectly.  One interesting fact is that some of these terms worked their way into USMC vernacular, many of which are still used to this day.  Sneakers are referred to as “gofasters”  and “ink sticks” are pens.

When the Navajo Code Talkers were put to the test in live warfare, they completely exceeded expectations.  At the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest of WWII, their efforts helped win this key point in the war.

As Major Howard Conner recalls, ““Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken 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."  Not one single error.

The Navajo Code Talkers program was so effective, that even after their role in the success of the Allies defeating the Axis, they were still utilized effectively through the Korean War and the Vietnam War.  Thus, leaving all of the enemy forces’ cryptographers scratching their heads throughout the history of their successful program, playing a major part in the success of every battle they took part in.  This was the only non-current military communication effort that was never able to be translated by the enemy, ever.

Though many awards have been given to honor these Code Talkers since the program became declassified in 1968, perhaps the most honorable recognition was given on November 15th, 2008, when the President of the United States passed the The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008, awarding The Congressional Gold Medal (of individual design for each member's tribe) to every Code Talker who served in the US military in WWI and WWII.  This unlikely group of heroes helped win World War II and save the world as we know it.

"Ahééhee'" to each and every one of the Code Talkers from all of us at Huckberry.  (Navajo for “thank you”)

For more information, head on over to the official website of the Navajo Code Talkers, which is also where we sourced many of the photos above.