Army Code Talkers photo courtesy of the U.S. ArmyCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

The Navajo code talkers were instrumental in the success of the United States in the pacific campaign of World War 2.  There has been a movie about them, and a few awards given years later, but initially little fanfare surrounded this group of soldiers.  Kept secret for decades, it wasn't that long ago the public finally heard about them.  

Who were the Code Talkers? 

In general terms, code talkers were United States soldiers used during World War I and World War 2 to transmit coded messages using their knowledge of Native American language.  Approximately 400 Native Americans joined the U.S. Marine Corps for this specific purpose.  The term “code talkers” is identified with bilingual Navajo speakers recruited during World War 2; however, the U.S. Army deployed other Native Americans including Cherokee, Lakota, Choctaw, Comanche, and Meskwaki soldiers to specifically work as communicators of code.  

A group of Cherokee troops used by the American 30th Infantry Division during World War I is the first known use of Native Americans in the U.S. military; but it was in the 36th Infantry Division, fourteen Choctaw men were trained to use their native language in code.   During the final big push in France from the Germans, the Choctaw language helped turn the tide to give the Allies victory.  In less than three days after the language was used for communications, the Germans were retreating and the Allies were in full attack mode.  These soldiers were known as the Choctaw code talkers and considered the pioneers of the code talkers.  

Before World War 2 started Hitler attempted to exploit the success of the World War I code talkers.  He ordered abComanche Code Talkers photo courtesy of the U.S. ArmyCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Armyout thirty anthropologists to learn Native American languages, but it proved too difficult because there were too many languages and dialects.   It did, however,  cause the U.S. Army to keep their talkers from entering European operations on a large-scale. Fourteen Comanches compiled a vocabulary of over 100 words and phrases and two Comanche talkers were assigned to each regiment with the rest assigned to the 4th Infantry Division headquarters.  The Comanches began transmitting messages shortly after landing on Utah Beach in 1944.  

The Navajo Code Talkers 

Most people don’t know about the Navajo code talkers and their contribution to the war efforts.  In the early months of the war, Japanese intelligence broke all the codes the U.S. military devised.  The Japanese had plenty of fluent English speakers who could sabotage communications between forces.  The U.S. attempted to use more complex codes, but it was time consuming and inefficient.  Enter Phillip Johnston, a civil engineer for Los Angeles.  

Johnston was a veteran of World War I and was raised on a Navajo reservation; the son of a Protestant missionary.  He was one of less than 30 outsiders who was fluent in the Navajo language.  The language at the time was unwritten; it had no alphabet and was almost impossible to understand unless one had extensive exposure and training to it.  Johnston believed it was perfect for use in military communications and approached Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commander of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, with his idea.  After a demonstration, in which he showed the Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds instead of the 30 minutes it took for a machine to do the same, he wasOriginal 29 Navajo Code Talkers  photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records AdministrationCredit: photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration given permission to begin a test program. 

Vogel recommended recruiting 200 Navajos into the U.S. Marine Corps.  The first 29 recruits attended boot camp in May 1942 at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California.  These 29 are referred to as the “original 29” as they conceived the initial code used. The unit consisted of enlistees of varying ages.  Many lacked birth certificates and it was only after the war their ages were discovered.  Some were only fifteen and others as old as thirty-five.  From a Navajo nation of about 50,000, by the end of the war 420 became code talkers.  

The Code Created by the Navajo Code Talkers 

The Navajo code originated as approximately 200 terms.  It was modeled on the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet which uses agreed-upon English words to represent letters. Native terms were used to represent military terms such as a dive-bomber was "gini," which translated to a “chicken hawk”,” a bird which dives on its prey. Letters of the alphabet were formed by using Navajo terms based on the first letter of the word’s English meaning; for example "Wo-La-Chee" means "ant," and would represent the letter "A".  Other “A” words such as “tse-nill,” which translated to “apple,” were also used to eliminate excessive repetition to avoid the code from being broken.  

A codebook was created for training new recruits, but was used strictly in the classroom.  Code talkers were required to memorize all the codes and practice using them under simulated combat conditions during training.  Uninitiated Navajo speakers would have no idea what the messages meant. Once trained, the Navajo Code Talkers were sent to Marine divisions in the Pacific theater of World War 2. 

Additional codes were added as the war progressed, growing to over 600 terms by war’s end.  In addition, informal short-cut code words were established for specific campaigns and not used inNavajo Code Talkers photo courtesy of the U.S. NavyCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy other operations.  To ensure consistency throughout the Pacific Theater, representatives of the U.S. Marine divisions met in Hawaii to discuss the codes and update their codebooks; in turn they trained those who could not attend the meeting.  

At the Battle of Iwo Jima, six code talkers coded over 800 transmissions in the first two days.  5th Marine Division Signal Officer, Major Howard Connor, would later state, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."  The deployment of Navajo Code Talkers continued during the Korean War and in the early days of the Vietnam War.  

Recognition for the Code Talkers 

The code talkers were considered a military secret for many years and thus for decades they remained “silent heroes.”   In 1968, the code was declassified, but it was decades later when the talkers finally received recognition.  In 1982 U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave the code talkers a Certificate of Recognition and declared August 14, 1982 “Navajo Code Talkers Day.” In 1989, the French government awarded the Comanche code talkers the Chevalier of the National Order of Merit 

In 1992, the Pentagon recognized the Navajo Code Talkers with a ceremony which opened an exhibition at the facility.  Thirty-five veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps, all code talkers, attended the dedication of the exhibit.  The exhibit includes photographs, equipment and the original code and is one of the favorite stops of the Pentagon Tours 

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 106-554, 114 Statute 2763, which awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original twenty-nine World War 2 Navajo code talkers, and Silver Medals to each person who qualified as a Navajo Code Talker.  In 2001 President George W. Bush presented the Medal to four of the five surviving original 29 code talkers with the fifth unable to attend the ceremony.  The families of the other 24 were presented withCongressional Medal for Navajo Code Talkers photo courtesy of the U.S MintCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S Mint the Medal.  

In 2007, 18 Choctaw code talks were awarded the Texas Medal of Valor posthumously for their service in World War 2.  In 2008, President George W. Bush signed The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 which recognized all Native American code talkers who served during World War I and World War 2, except the Navajo talkers already awarded, with a Congressional Gold Medal.  The Medal was designed individually for each tribe and retained by the Smithsonian Institution with a silver medal duplicate given to each code talker.  



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