Navajo Code Talker



Once the code was created, the radiomen faced their next challenge--the application of Navajo code talking in actual maneuvers. In the field, transmissions were delivered as if in combat; from ship to shore, from one ground unit to another, from ground to air, and from command center to armored divisions.

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On August 7, 1942, the First Marine Division hit the beaches on Guadalcanal. By autumn, elements of the Second Marine Division arrived on the island. Attached to both were Navajo code talkers.

Navajo Code Talkers History Navajo code talkers

The army chose to experiment with Indian code talkers, but only on a limited scale. In autumn 1940, a small group of Chippewas and Oneidas joined the Thirty-second Infantry Division for the express purpose of radio communications.

Soon afterward, an Iowa National Guard unit, the Nineteenth Infantry Division, brought several members of the Sac and Fox tribes into its ranks for the same purpose. Their training, and their use in maneuvers in Louisiana, hinted at the successful utilization of Indians as combat radiomen.

The tactic seemed so promising that the Thirty-second requested the Indians' permanent assignment to the division, and the army expanded the program in 1941. With posts in the Philippines, where Spanish was commonly spoken, radiomen were needed who could transmit messages directly to the Filipino forces, to American units, and if needed, in code.

The War Department found among the Pueblo Indians the necessary linguistic abilities, actively recruited them into the New Mexico National Guard, mobilized the outfit, and shipped the unit to the islands. Optimism prevailed within the Signal Corps, and, in spring 1942, thirty Comanches entered the Signal Corps and were dispatched to the European Theater.

Despite the army's early efforts and the proficiency demonstrated by Indian code talkers, the War Department never fully grasped the program's potential. No more than a few dozen Indians were trained for radio operations. In contrast, the Marine Corps developed the concept on such a broad level that it became an integral part of the branch's combat operations. Unlike the army, Marine solicitation of Indians did not commence until after Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the program resulted not from within the military but from a civilian source.

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In February 1942, Philip Johnston approached Major James E. Jones, Force Communications Officer at Camp Elliot in San Diego, with a plan to use the Navajo language for battlefield radio transmissions. The son of a Protestant missionary, Johnston had lived among the Navajos for more than twenty years, and, during that time, gained fluency in the native language. He explained to Major Jones that the Navajos spoke a language unlike any other Indians and added that less than a dozen anthropologists had ever studied that part of Navajo culture. Even German scholars who visited Indian communities in the 1930s, including the Nazi propagandist Dr. Colin Ross, ignored the Navajo language. In essence, this peculiar language seemed safe from enemy understanding if incorporated into the Marine Corps' communication structure. 46

Navajo Code TalkersJohnston convinced Major Jones of the possible worth of his idea, and before the week's end, the Marine Corps extended Johnston the opportunity for a demonstration. On the morning of February 28, the former missionary's son and four Navajos arrived at Camp Elliot.

Major Jones gave them six messages normally communicated in military operations and instructed the group to assemble forty-five minutes later at division headquarters. With such a short time to devise a basic code, the Navajos worked feverishly. At 9:00 A.M. Johnston and the four Indians appeared before Jones, General Clayton B. Vogel, and others to conduct their demonstration. Within seconds, the six messages were transmitted in Navajo, received, decoded, and correctly relayed to Major Jones.

"It goes in, in Navajo? And it comes out in English?" questioned one rather surprised officer. In later tests, three code experts attached to the United States Navy failed to decipher "intercepted" transmissions; the system "seemed foolproof." Both Jones and Vogel were immensely impressed.

Over the following days, the merits of an Indian code-talking program gathered interest with General Vogel's staff. By mid-March, the Marine Corps authorized the recruitment of twenty-nine Navajos for communications work and formed the 382nd Platoon for the Indian specialists. Immediately, the boarding schools at Fort Defiance, Shiprock, and Fort Wingate received visits from marine personnel, and the original complement of code talkers was formed. In addition, Philip John- ston petitioned the Marine Corps for his own enlistment as training specialist at a noncommissioned rank. Though already in his forties, the Marine Corps accepted his offer.

Navajo Code Talkers

The Indian recruits received basic training and advanced infantry training in San Diego before they were informed of their particular task. To a man, the Indians responded enthusiastically and began the construction of a code. The initial problem centered on the transfer of military terms and phrases to the Navajo language.

This proved especially difficult since most of the terms to be encoded had no counterpart among Indians. It was recognized that coded expressions demanded simplicity. Under combat conditions, rapid transmission and translation was critical. Lengthy phrases, or those difficult to remember, might prove too time consuming and, therefore, counterproductive. To avert perplexity, the Navajos selected words that held direct association with nature or with their common reservation life.

Navajo Code Talkers

Two methods of communication emerged. The first rested squarely on a "words for alphabet" system. Certain terms, particularly names, could not easily be given a specific code word. Simply trying to affix an Indian word to each of the Pacific islands on which Marines would land proved futile.

Under the alphabet method, each of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet would be represented by an Indian term. For example, 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 would make the code penetrable, letters carried multiple terms.

Navajo Code Talkers

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The letter "a" also stood for apple (be-la-sana) and axe (tse-nihl). A "t" was represented by tea (dah) and tooth (awoh). In this fashion, the code talkers created forty-four words for letters in the alphabet, the most numerous variations given to those vowels and consonants most frequently repeated. Tarawa, then, might be coded as "dah, be-la-sana, dah-nas-tsa, tse-nihl, glowih, wol-la-chee."

Source:World War II and the American Indian. Contributors: Kenneth William Townsend - author. Publisher: University of New Mexico Press. Place of Publication: Albuquerque. Publication Year: 2000.