In commemoration of Navajo Code Talkers Day on August 14, Tidbits digs into the history of these World War II heroes.
• In the midst of war, it’s of utmost importance to an army to transmit crucial information and plans to its forces as quickly and confidentially as possible. During World War II, the U.S. Marine Corps sought to create a code that was unbreakable to the enemy. The Navajo Code Talkers were the result.
• Phillip Johnston was the son of a missionary to the Navajos and was fluent in the complex Navajo language. At age 9, Johnston had served as an interpreter for a Navajo delegation sent to Washington, D.C. to lobby for Native American rights. He was also a World War I veteran, and knew that the Choctaw Indian language had been used then in coding.
• In 1942, Johnston suggested the use of the Navajo language to military generals, devising a sample code for testing. When Defense Department cryptographers attempted for four days to break the code without success, it was approved for battle. The first 29 Navajo recruits reported for boot camp at Camp Pendleton in May, 1942.
• The recruits developed the code by using Navajo words to apply to implements of war, such as names of different birds to denote various kinds of planes. “Dah-he-tih-hi,” the Navajo word for “hummingbird,” meant fighter plane. “Besh-lo,” meaning “iron fish” signified a submarine. From there, they devised a “code within a code,” first translating a Navajo word into English, then using only the first letter of the English equivalent. To spell the word “Navy,” by using just the first letter, they would apply the Navajo word “tsah” (needle), “wol-la-chee (ant), “ah-keh-di-glini,” (victory), and “tsah-ah-dzoh,” (yucca) to form the code word. About 450 military terms were created from the native language.
• The Talkers were able to translate three lines of English to code in 20 seconds. Thirty minutes was the norm for an existing code-breaking machine. They participated in every U.S. Marine operation in the Pacific theater between 1942 and 1945.
• The Battle of Iwo Jima was a major World War II battle that took place from February 19 until March 26, 1945, with the purpose of capturing two Japanese airfields on the island. During the five brutal weeks of the battle, six Navajo Code Talkers operated continuously, transmitting more than 800 coded messages, completely without error. Marine Major Howard Connor, the signal officer of the Code Talkers at Iwo Jima, said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” The Japanese were utterly confused by the code and were never able to crack it.
• In 1945, there were about 50,000 total Navajo tribe members. Of this number, about 540 served in the U.S. Marines. About 400 of those participated in the Code Talker program.
• The valiant work of these heroes wasn’t recognized and lauded until after the formal declassification of the operation in 1968. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared August 14 as Navajo Code Talkers Day.
• Chester Nez, one of the original 29 recruits, was the last surviving code talker, passing away in 2014 at age 93. Thirteen years earlier, he and four other surviving talkers had received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush.