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Unbreakable Code – The Pivotal Role of Navajo Code Talkers in WWII

Nikola Budanovic
Getty Images

The Second World War brought with it a surge of interest and development in the field of cryptography.

It proved vital in many aspects of the conflict to have safe channels of communication, as surprise was key in organizing offensives which would often involve hundreds of thousands of people.

While designing the codes was an unprecedented effort, both sides also worked tirelessly to intercept and decipher their enemy’s messages in order to gain the upper hand.

Navajo code talkers, Saipan, June 1944.

Navajo code talkers, Saipan, June 1944.

When the United States entered the war in the Pacific, they were met with a number of issues. One of these was that the English language proved unsafe to be used in coding. Most Japanese cryptographers were educated in the United States and were well prepared for code-cracking once the war escalated, easily intercepting and decoding American radio-transmitted orders and messages.

While figuring out the alternative, the United States Marine Corps received a proposition from one Phillip Johnston, a civil engineer, who claimed to have a solution for their problems.

Johnston was a son of missionaries who grew up with the Navajo people in Arizona, becoming one of the few outsiders who actually spoke the language of the tribe.

Bill Toledo, Robert Walley, and Alfred Newman, World War II Navajo code talker veterans, pose for a photo at the Luke Air Force Base exchange. The three veterans visited Luke to educate the public about the Navajo Code Talkers and their role in WWII. Photo by U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Grace Lee

Bill Toledo, Robert Walley, and Alfred Newman, World War II Navajo code talker veterans, pose for a photo at the Luke Air Force Base exchange. The three veterans visited Luke to educate the public about the Navajo Code Talkers and their role in WWII. Photo by U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Grace Lee

Thus, when the war broke out, he came up with the idea of using the Navajo language in code as it was largely unknown to anyone outside of the reservations.

After a successful demonstration in which four Navajo dockworkers participated as code talkers, the idea was put into consideration.

This actually wasn’t the first time that the U.S. turned to Native Americans for help regarding coded messages. During the last few months of World War I, this was common practice for soldiers of Cherokee and Choctaw origin, who translated messages of high importance into their native tongue to preserve their secrecy in case they fell into enemy hands.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Henry Bake and George Kirk, December 1943. Photo by U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Henry Bake and George Kirk, December 1943. Photo by U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense

In the years leading up to WWII, Germany financed a number of studies related to various Native American dialects and were more or less familiar with languages spoken by most of the tribes.

However, according to Marine Corps Major General Clayton B. Vogel who endorsed Johnston’s idea, Navajo people were never penetrated by nosy German scholars. In addition, the language had no alphabet in 1942 and existed only in its oral form, making it impossible for outsiders to master.

Therefore, the language could very well function as an unbreakable code.

Chester Nez during World War II.

Chester Nez during World War II.

The success of the demonstration led to the recruitment of 200 Navajo men into the United States Marine Corps and their subsequent training in the field of cryptography.

Chester Nez was among the first to join the experimental unit of 29 men who were responsible for establishing the code using Navajo words.

The language itself had very little military terms, which meant that suitable replacements needed to be used in order to transmit precise messages and avoid misunderstandings.

For example, a submarine was referred to as “a metal fish” and a dive bomber was called “chickenhawk.” Furthermore, new words were devised for verbs such as capture, escape, entrench, flank, halt, and target.

Navajo Code Talkers Peter Macdonald (left) and Roy Hawthorne participated in a ceremony November 10, 2010, at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. to pay tribute to veterans and to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Navajo Code Talkers Peter Macdonald (left) and Roy Hawthorne participated in a ceremony November 10, 2010, at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. to pay tribute to veterans and to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. (U.S. Air Force photo)

During the course of the war, around 400 Navajo men would be recruited, as the code proved successful beyond anyone’s imagination. In fact, it became the only oral military code that has never been broken.

Participating in all major campaigns from 1942 to 1945, from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima, the Navajo code talkers would develop over time a complex system of ciphers which provided the U.S. Marine Corps the edge they needed in order to achieve victory against the Japanese.

Nez, who was raised in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, was surprised to learn that the language which was suppressed during his education now took a central role in the fight for the future of the United States.

Code Talkers Monument Ocala, Florida Memorial Park Photo by Mlpearc CC BY-SA 3.0

Code Talkers Monument Ocala, Florida Memorial Park Photo by Mlpearc CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2002, he recalled his experience in an interview for USA Today one year after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, handed to him and other surviving code talkers by President George W. Bush.

“All those years, telling you not to speak Navajo, and then to turn around and ask us for help with that same language… It still kind of bothers me.”

Although the role of Navajo proved pivotal, especially in Iwo Jima, Native American soldiers still suffered discrimination on the home front. After the war, they were obliged to keep silent about their actions, for the code was categorized as top secret.

Until 1968, the Navajo code talkers weren’t allowed to mention their contribution to the war and were largely neglected as veterans.

Read another story from us: Mel Brooks Fought in one of WWII’s Most Famous and Horrific Battles

However, their efforts are today fully recognized and the significance of the Navajo code remains engraved in history as one of the most important factors which ensured the Allied victory in the Pacific.