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Today, how about a little history lesson? Let’s learn about a little-known aspect that lead to American success in WWII: Navajo Code Talkers.
Codes are important during war times. Obviously, you can’t communicate battle plans to your forces in a way that the enemy can intercept, or you risk losing the element of surprise and losing lives in the process. The problem the US faced in WWII was that the Germans and Japanese were pretty good at cracking codes we used to communicate.
The US did have a good potential for secrets codes, in the form of intricate, little-known languages spoken by various Native American groups. In WWI, US forces used the Choctaw language for successfully transmitting messages. In fact, when the war ended, Germany and Japan sent students to the US to study Native American languages so that they could be better prepared to understand possibles codes based on them.
WWII began, and we meet Philip Johnston. Johnston had been raised on a Navajo reservation where his parents were missionaries, so he knew the Navajo language well. The language is oral only — not written — and only the Navajo people know how to speak it. Its tonal qualities and syntax made it quite complex, so Johnston felt it had great potential for military code use. The US Marine Corps liked his idea and began by using 29 Navajo speakers in a pilot program.
In spite of the Navajo language being so obscure, the Marines made it even more decipherable by substituting some words for others. For instance, bomber planes were referred to by the Navajo word for “buzzards;” submarines were “iron fish.” Words not existing in the Navajo language were spelled out in their alphabet. In a test, the Navajo code talkers translated, transmitted, and re-translated a test message accurately in just over two minutes. Without using the code, the same message would have taken hours to send.
Over 400 Navajo code talkers were eventually used during the war. They were used in every major Marine operation in the Pacific during WWII, sending over 800 messages without error. There were some difficulties: some of the code talkers were mistaken by Marines for Japanese. Many were almost shot, and at some point several were assigned their own bodyguards for protection.
Major Howard Connor, signal officer of the Navajos at Iwo Jima, said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” The Japanese never did crack the code.
The whole concept of the Navajo code and the code talkers was not made known until it was declassified in 1968. President Reagan recognized them in a 1982 ceremony.
Books about Navajo code talkers, if you’d like to learn more: