Navajo Code Talkers: War Heroes

Nov 20, 2011 By Deepa Gopal
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While World War II was being fought on the battlefields, another war was taking place behind the scenes -- the struggle to create a secret code that could not be deciphered by the enemy.

Rewind to the early years of World War II. The US was dragged into the war after Japan's bold and ruthless attack on Pearl Harbor. Not only were Japan's air attacks a force to contend with, the Japanese had broken every secret code that the Americans had come up with. Coded messages were used to relay sensitive information such as battle plans and enemy positions. 

It was then that a brilliant idea emerged out of the blue - a code based on a Native-American language that completely fooled the Japanese. 

The beginnings of an idea

The Navajo Code was the brainchild of WWI veteran Philip Johnston. Johnston had grown up on a Navajo reservation, and was fluent in the Navajo language. He was inspired by a World War I story in which several Choctaw Indians talked to each other in their native language, and completely fooled the Germans. Johnston reasoned that the Navajo language would prove just as effective in secret communication.

His suggestion met with skeptical approval from the US marines, who did not put much faith in the idea. However, recruitment started in the spring of 1942, and by May, Johnston had rounded up 29 Code Talkers, as they came to be known -- their ages ranging form 15 to 35. Over the next few weeks, the Code Talkers spent weeks at a military base defining and perfecting their code. 

The Code

When a Navajo Code Talker received a message, what he heard was a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words. The receiver first had to translate each Navajo word into its English meaning. He would then use the first letter of the English word as his clue. 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)."

However, not all words had to be spelled out letter by letter. The code developers came up with Navajo words that represented miitary terms -- as an exmaple, "besh- lo" (iron fish) meant "submarine," and "dah-he- tih-hi" (hummingbird) meant "fighter plane". The code was so confusing that another Navajo, who was not a Code Talker could not interpret it!

On the Battlefield

Navajo Code Talkers were very effective on the battlefield. When the Americans were fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, the Code Talkers handled all major communications. The Japanese were stumped and simply could not decipher it -- all they heard were a series of gurgling sounds that did not make sense!

The Navajo Code Talkers became national heroes after the Battle of Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima was a strategic location for the Japanese, from where they launched attacks against the US, and spotted any incoming attacks. If the US captured Iwo Jima, the Japanese resistance would crumble... Under great pressure, where one flawed message could mean the loss of hundreds or thousands of soldiers, the Code Talkers sent 800 perfect messages. Their heroism in the battle is widely acknowledged as the pivotal act that turned the war, and helped the U.S capture Iwo Jima. 

November is Native American Heritage month. It would we good to pause and think back to these good men, who stepped up when their country needed them.