The Navajo Code Talkers or “Windtalkers” were apart of a small group of 400-500 Native Americans enlisted in the US military during the world wars. It was Philip Johnson, a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles, who proposed the use of Navajo to the United States Marine Corps at the beginning of World War II. Johnston, a World War I veteran, was raised on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary to the Navajos, and was one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. Because Navajo has a complex grammar and at the time being an unwritten language, Johnston saw Navajo as answering the military requirement for an undecipherable code. Navajo was spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest, and its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, made it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. One estimate indicates that at the outbreak of World War II fewer than 30 non-Navajos could understand the language.
Early in 1942, Johnston met with Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and his staff. Johnston staged tests under simulated combat conditions which demonstrated that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds, versus the 30 minutes required by machines at that time. The idea was quickly accepted, with Vogel recommending that the Marines recruit 200 Navajos.
The first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp in May 1942. These 29 recruits would develop the Navajo code, combining their language with the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet to create a codebook. The codebook was developed to teach the many relevant words and concepts to new initiates. The text was for classroom purposes only, and was never to be taken into the field. The code talkers memorized all these variations and practiced their rapid use under stressful conditions during training. Uninitiated Navajo speakers would have no idea what the code talkers’ messages meant; they would hear only truncated and disjointed strings of individual, unrelated nouns and verbs.
As time went on the Windtalkers would go on to take part of every US Marine assault in World War II. The Windtalkers were commended for their skill, speed, and accuracy accrued throughout the war. At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. These six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor later stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
As the war progressed, additional code words were added on and incorporated program-wide. In other instances, informal short-cut code words were devised for a particular campaign and not disseminated beyond the area of operation. To ensure a consistent use of code terminologies throughout the Pacific Theater, representative code talkers of each of the U.S. Marine divisions met in Hawaii to discuss shortcomings in the code, incorporate new terms into the system, and update their codebooks. These representatives in turn trained other code talkers who could not attend the meeting. The code talkers received no recognition until the declassification of the operation in 1968.
Finally, in 1982, the code talkers were given a Certificate of Recognition by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who also named August 14, 1982 “Navajo Code Talkers Day”, and later, President Bill Clinton signed a law which would award the Congressional Gold Medal to the original twenty-nine World War II Navajo code talkers, and Silver Medals to each person who qualified as a Navajo code talker. In July 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush personally presented the Medal to four surviving original code talkers (the fifth living original code talker was not able to attend) at a ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. Gold medals were presented to the families of the 24 original code talkers no longer living.
The last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers who developed the code, Chester Nez, died last month on June 4, 2014, marking an end to an era of heroes who worked diligently behind the public eye and recognition. These men layed a course that significantly helped many of our men return home after the war and became heroes for the cryptologic world. Their dedication and devotion to their duty will always be remembered.
-PO2 Howard, Command Blog Manager