In 1863, Kit Carson and 700 of his New Mexico volunteers brought the Navajos almost to the point of extinction. Resettlement and economic plans that followed attempted to assimilate the Navajo into the culture of majority America. Boarding schools had been set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs where the Navajo language was banned and students were punished for speaking it. The Native Americans, as a whole, are an extremely patriotic people. In the late spring of 1940, “the Navajo tribal council at Window Rock swore their allegiance and that of their 50,000 tribal members to the American government. They resolved that ‘the Navajo Indians stand ready, as they did in 1918, to aid and defend our Government and its institutions against all subversive and armed conflict…’” The Navajos were still not allowed to vote in state elections – they didn’t gain this right until 1948 in Arizona, 1953 in New Mexico, and 1957 in Utah. They could, however, vote in federal elections. (“The Navajo Code Talkers: A Brief History”)
Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran, and the son of missionaries to the Navajos who had lived on the reservation, was one of about 30 non-Navajos in the world who could speak the Navajo language. He read, early February 1942, about some of the Native Americans, army recruits from Wisconsin and Michigan, who were using their native language when radioing field orders during practice maneuvers. The idea of using Native American language during a war was not new to World War II; in fact, in World War I, Choctaw Native Americans used their native language to confuse the Kaiser’s army. Using Navajo during World War II went a step further insofar as Navajo was “a strictly oral language of Obscure Athabascan roots, as the basis for a code that carried no written documentation.” (“The Navajo Factor”) “The Navajo language is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest.” (Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet”)
Philip Johnston drove from Los Angeles to USMC Camp Elliot, San Diego, and presented his idea of using the Navajo language as a code to Lieutenant Colonel James E. Jones. He got a chance in late February to give a demonstration of his idea with four Los Angeles Navajo men to Major General Clayton B. Vogel, commanding general, Amphibious Corp, Pacific Fleet. Two field telephones were set up in the headquarters building, in two separate rooms. The Navajos were given six combat-type messages. They were allowed an hour to translate what they could of the messages and to agree among themselves on Navajo words they would substitute for terms like “dive bombing” and “antitank gun” which had no equivalent in the Navajo language. A Navajo was given a message that he translated into Navajo and he would then broadcast it to the second room, where a second Navajo would translate it back to English, write it out, and had it delivered back to the first room. General Vogel was convinced within 15 minutes. The Navajo coding and decoding was fast and accurate. (“The Navajo Factor”) The Navajos were able to encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds, while machines of the time took 30 minutes to perform the same job. (“Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet”) On March 6th, General Vogel requested that he be authorized to recruit 200 Navajos. After three weeks, his proposal was cut to 30 recruits – there was concern about the Navajo language being garbled in transmission static and that the Navajos would have a problem understanding the complexity of radio electronics; 29 finished the course. The original code was developed by these 29 Code Talkers. (“The Navajo Factor”)
They attended boot camp in May of 1942 at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, where they created the original code. They developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. Everything, dictionary and all code words, had to be memorized during training. (“Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet”)
Once the Code Talker completed his training, he was sent to a Marine unit in the Pacific Theater. His primary job was “to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios. They also acted as messengers and performed general Marine duties.” (“Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet”)
Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer declared, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” Six Navajo code talkers were on Iwo Jima, working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. They sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. (“Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet”)
As adept as the Japanese were at breaking codes, they were completely bewildered by the Navajo language. A Navajo soldier had been taken prisoner at Bataan (about 20 Navajos were in the U.S. Army in the Philippines). He was forced, under torture, to listen to the jumbled words of talker transmissions. He said to a code talker after the war, “I never figured out what you guys who got me into all that trouble were saying.” (“Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet”)
More than 5,000 Navajo men registered for military service during World War II, and 3,600 served. Of this number, slightly over 400 were United States Marine Corps Code Talkers. The Navajos had to be fluent in both Navajo and English, complete Basic Training and pass proficiency exams. Beginning with Guadalcanal in August 1943, the Code Talkers were a part of every major engagement in the Pacific Theater. They served in command centers, on board ships with the Navy, with field commanders, and on the front lines. Some were unable to convince their commanding officers that the code was reliable, and would rarely have occasion to use the code. Others were busy around the clock with the transmissions, coding and decoding. There were issues of acceptance with their fellow soldiers – they were generally referred to as “Chief.” There were a number of stories of them being captured by American troops who had mistaken them for Japanese. Seven of the Code Talkers died in action or from wounds received in action. (“The Navajo and the Code in War”)
The original code of 1942 developed by the first 29 Code Talkers was revised and expanded through the course of the war, primarily adding terms. The original code had 236 terms; “communication needs of the battlefield has expanded it to over 400 terms, all oral, no code books.” (“The Navajo and the Code in War”) In some instances, short cut code words were utilized for a particular campaign and not disseminated beyond that area of operation. To make sure that the code terminologies remained consistent throughout the Pacific Theater, representative code talkers from each of the U.S. Marine Divisions met periodically in Hawaii to discuss shortcomings of the code, incorporating new terms into the system, and updating their code books. These representatives would train the other code talkers who were not able to attend the meeting. The code books that were developed were never taken into the field. (“Code Talker”)
Navajo was still valuable as a code even after the war. Because of this, “the code talkers, whose skill and courage saved both American lives and military engagements, only recently earned recognition from the Government and the public.” (Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet”) They received no recognition until the declassification of the operation in 1968. In 1982, they were given a Certificate of Recognition by President Ronald Reagan, who named August 14 “National Code Talkers Day.” (“Code Talker”) The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II were honored for their contributions to defense on September 17, 1992, at the Pentagon, Washington, DC. Thirty-five Marine veteran code talkers attended the dedication of the Navajo code talker exhibit which includes a display of photographs, equipment, the original code and an explanation of how it worked. The Navajo code talker exhibit is a regular stop on the Pentagon tour. (Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet”)
Navajo code talkers were also used in the Korean War; the use of code talkers ended shortly into the Vietnam War. The movie Windtalkers (which I saw a few years ago) is based on the Navajo code talkers of World War II. They were nicknamed the “windtalkers,” who were deployed to front-line areas in the Pacific to use their language as a code which was impossible to crack. (“Code Talker”)
Adolf Hitler knew about the success of the code talkers during World War I and sent a team of about thirty anthropologists to learn Native American languages before the outbreak of World War II, but it proved too difficult to learn all the languages and dialects that existed. But because of Nazi Germany’s anthropologists attempting to learn the languages, the U.S. Army did not implement a large-scale code talker program in the European Theater – they did use fourteen Comanches on D-Day. (“Code Talker”)
If you go to the Navajo Code Talkers’ Directory website: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq61-4.htm you will find the directory revised as of 15 June 1945, declassified under Department of Defense Directive 5200.9. It gives the English word, the Navajo word, and the literal translation. Some examples are (names of various organizations) Corps. Navajo Word: Din-neh-ih, literal translation: Clan. America. Ne-he-mah. Our mother. Spain. Deba-de-hih. Sheep pain. Bomb. A-ye-shi. Eggs. Cemetery. Jish-cha. Among devils. Grenade. Ni-ma-si. Potatoes. You can see some of the basis behind the system; i.e., the corps is the clan, very important to the Navajo. The cemetery, among devils – the Navajo do not wish to deal with the dead. Spain, they relate with sheep and with pain, no doubt both going back in early history with their dealings with the Spanish. At the end of this website, Jimmy King, a Navajo instructor, translated the Marine Hymn into Navajo. (“Navajo Code Talkers’ Directory.”)
One of the two books I purchased for this paper, “Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers” was photographed and put together by a Japanese man, Kenji Kawano. It features photographs and testimonials from about 75 of the Code Talkers, each giving the name of the code talker, his Navajo Clan, and where he served in the Pacific. Kenjii dedicated the book to the Navajo Code Talkers, “who defended their country by speaking their own language.” The book’s Foreword was particularly interesting, and I will submit it as is:
“It was about fifteen years ago that I saw a man walking along the road in Window Rock, Arizona. He was carrying a big camera bag over his shoulder. I stopped my car and asked if he’d like a lift to St. Michaels, Arizona, abut two miles along he way. I learned that his name was Kenji Kawano, he was from Japan, and was staying in Ganado, Arizona. Ganado is close to thirty miles west of where we were, but he accepted my invitation to go with my wife and I to a Squaw Dance (Enemy Way Ceremony) in Crystal, New Mexico. Getting back to Ganado could wait.
Every time after that, when I saw him walking along the road, I picked him up. He was always going here and there keeping his eyes open for pictures of the country and the Navajo people who inspired him as subjects. Our friendship grew and now he, his wife Ruth, and daughter Sakura, are like family to my wife and I.
Sometime shortly after we met, Kenji learned that I had been a Navajo code talker in the Marine Corps in World War II. Our Navajo language had been coded and used very successfully in the Pacific in the battles with the Japanese forces. One day, I took him to a Navajo Code Talkers Association meeting. He began taking pictures of us in parades and functions where we appeared. He then became a photographer for the Navajo Times and began accompanying us to parades and special functions where we appeared or were honored. We made him “official” photographer for the association and, later, an honorary member.
Sometimes he would travel on the bus to Phoenix or San Diego. He had a great opportunity there to talk with many of the code talkers. He became well-acquainted with many of us. As a sensitive photographer, he had a good chance on these trips to observe us. The portrait photos in this book reflect years of contact with us as individuals as we are today, and something of who we were forty years ago when your language helped the United States defeat his people.
Kenjii must have thought many times about how he happened to be photographing the code talkers. Somewhere along the line, he decided he wanted his people to know about the code talkers. He wanted them to know that the Navajo language code that had baffled their communicators was created by people who looked so much like them that some of our Navajo Marines were even mistaken for Japanese by our own American soldiers. More than this, he wanted the American people to know more about us. He decided to do a book that would honor us. Kenji Kawano’s portraits speak for themselves. They also say volumes about the man, as you will see.
As our friendship began with a visit to a Navajo Enemy Way Ceremony, so does this book and tribute symbolize the healing of the wounds of war. To Kenji Kawano, my Japanese-Navajo friend, I say ahéhee (thank you).”
Gorman, Code Talker
“Code Talker.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved 10/7/07 from website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_talker
Kawano, Kenji. “Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers.” 1990. Northland Publishing, P.O. Box 1389, Flagstaff, Arizona 86002-1389.
“Navajo Code Talkers’ Directory.” Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center, 805 Kidder Breese SE, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC 20374-5060. Revised as of 15 June 1945 (Declassified under Department of Defense Directive 5200.9). Retrieved 4/7/07 from website: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq61-4.htm.
“Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet.” Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center, 805 Kidder Breese SE, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC 20374-5060. Prepared by the Navy & Marine Corps WWII Commemorative Committee. Retrieved 4/7/07 from website: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq61-2.htm.
“The Navajo and the Code in War.” America’s Native Heroes: The Lives and Times of the Navajo Code Talkers. Retrieved 4/7/07 from website: http://www.thenavajocodetlkers.com/history_codeinwar.htm
“The Navajo Code Talkers: A Brief History.” America’s Native Heroes: The Lives and Times of the Navajo Code Talkers. Retrieved 4/7/07 from website: http://www.thenavajocodetlkers.com/history.htm
“The Navajo Factor.” America’s Native Heroes: The Lives and Times of the Navajo Code Talkers. Retrieved 4/7/07 from website: http://www.thenavajocodetlkers.com/history_navjofactor.htm
Nancy A. Butler, Student