The Navajo Code-Talkers played an integral role in the Allied advance into the Pacific Theater during World War II. Serving with the United States Marine Corps, the Code-Talkers became legendary for their service under remarkable pressures by developing a virtually watertight method of top-secret communication.
The use of the Navajo language as a secret method of communication gave the Allies a strategic advantage. The language was virtually impenetrable to any available codebreaking technique -- in essence, it was the perfect "key" -- so it could be used over unsecured radio frequencies. Even if the Japanese had been able to collect a huge number of messages, it would have remained nearly impossible to break the code.
What were the advantages of using the Navajo language over other methods of encryption?
In fact, there were several important advantages:
- The Navajo language had never been recorded in written form. This meant...
- the Japanese had no dictionary from which to work
- any set of symbols could have been applied in the process of encoding. The letter "G" did not need to stand for the same sound we recognize. This provided enormous flexibility.
- there was virtually no way to learn the language without living among the Navajo
- The Navajo language is much richer in texture (tonal nature, dialect, inflection, and structure) than English or most other languages. It is so complex, in fact, that one ordinary Navajo soldier who was captured by the Japanese was unable to interpret messages sent in his own language.
- The Navajo language was shared almost exclusively among the Navajo people. The Navy cites one estimate that fewer than thirty people outside the Navajo nation actually knew the language at the outbreak of World War II.
- The Navajo language had never been used before for such a purpose; the code itself was completely original.
- Despite the language's extraordinary complexity, the Code-Talkers were able to encode and decode messages at lightning speed. While a three-line English message might have taken 30 minutes to encode, transmit, and decode by machine, it took the Code-Talkers just 20 seconds.
Who, then, came up with the idea of using the Navajo language?
The idea of using an obscure language to encode messages was certainly not new. Other American Indian languages had been used in the First World War to transmit secret messages, and others had tried to use obscure languages in different engagements. The Navajo language, however, had never been used.
The idea was originally proposed by Philip Johnston, who had lived among the Navajos as the son of a missionary. Johnston was one of the few non-Navajo to speak the language, and he was aware of the complexities it involved. A veteran of World War I, Johnston became aware of the search for an impenetrable code and brought his idea to the Pacific Fleet in 1942.
The Marine Corps set immediately to recruiting Navajo to serve in the Pacific Theater. The original class of recruits numbered around 30. They spent much of their time devising the original code. While they were trained as Marines like any others, the Navajo were prepared especially for the tasks of communication.
The Navajo hold as part of their ancient history that they would someday be called upon to save the world. It may very well have been this sense of duty that made the Navajo effort in the war so successful. Even today, the Navajo remain less than fully convinced that their contribution has been fully acknowledged.
A total of some 540 Navajo eventually served as Marines, more than half of them as Code-Talkers. Their service appears to have been exclusive to the Pacific Theater, where the Marines fought long and difficult battles against the Japanese in the island-hopping campaign.
The Navajo were regarded as some of the best fighters the Marines had in their service. Their contributions at Guadalcanal, Taraw, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima, as well as elsewhere, certainly contributed to the safety (and survival) of countless American lives.
"Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."
-- Maj. Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division Signal Officer, under whom six Code-Talkers worked round-the-clock for two days at Iwo Jima. The Code-Talkers sent and received more than 800 messages without an error.
Ironically, the success of the Navajo Code-Talkers turned out to be a detriment at the end of the war. Rather than reveal the code that had been used, the military chose instead to continue using Navajo Code-Talkers to transmit important and secretive information well after the end of the Second World War. While other troops returned to ticker-tape parades and public praise, the Code-Talkers were forced to remain silent heroes. It was not until Ronald Reagan (himself a veteran of World War II intelligence operations) was in office that the contributions of the Navajo Code-Talkers were first publicly acknowledged. The Pentagon recognized their efforts in a 1992 ceremony, and an exhibit in their honor is now in place at the nation's military headquarters.
Originally, the Navajo simply adopted a series of words to represent English characters. The Navajo words for "ant," "axe," and "apple" stood for the letter "A." Given that each of those three words is at least two syllables long (and, further, that they sound nothing like one another), the alphabetic cipher itself was extremely complicated.
In the interest of efficiency, though, the Code-Talkers adopted words and phrases to symbolically represent the English-language words they were translating. Recall here that no dictionary existed and that the Navajo language itself is extremely complicated to translate to English.
The entire final dictionary, now declassified, is available online through the Navy. Some 450 words and phrases were changed to suit easier transmission.
|Navajo||Direct translation||Used for|
Navajo code-talkers on Saipan from the US Marine Corps archives
An armed code-talker from the Navajo Nation archives
For Further Research
Navajo Code-Talkers' dictionary from the Navy Historical Center
A brief history from the Navajo Nation
An excellent site by Harrison Lapahie, Jr., son of a code-talker
A fact sheet from the Navy Historical Center on the code-talkers
The Navy's bibliography on the code-talkers
A Google search on the code-talkers
Another brief history