Navajo Code Talkers of WWII

The secret weapon of the Marine Corps against Japan during World War Two were the Navajo Code Talkers and their unbreakable code.

During the closing days of World War One a certain captain by the name of Lawrence stumbled across two men in his company speaking a language that was totally foreign to him. These men were Native Americans and the language he overheard was their native Choctaw tongue.

Captain Lawrence stood there listening for a few moments, then was hit by inspiration, which enabled him to devise a plan that, within 72 hours, would turn the tide of the war and have the Germans in retreat.

It was a simple plan that would need eight special men (all Choctaw) to be spread out between the division headquarters to translate English orders and intelligence reports into Choctaw, send this translation by field telephones or written messages to each other and then translating the messages back into English for their respective commanders.

Knowing the Germans had broken every American code and tapped into the telephone lines, Captain Lawrence’s superiors went with the plan, and in the end, the Allied forces won the war while the Choctaw heroes went back home to their families. These heroes would never receive the recognition they deserved from their ungrateful country.

Twenty-five years later, America was once again in the middle of another World War with enemies who were also able to break every code the Americans could come up with. Although the Germans were good, the Japanese were experts at breaking these codes. Many of the Japanese Intelligence officers had been educated in the United States, so they were familiar with terms, idioms, and everyday slang.

It was at this time career officers who remembered the Choctaw Code Talkers began looking once again into the idea of using Native American languages for codes.

In Germany, seventeen Comanche men would be assigned to the “Comanche Signal Corps” and they, like the Choctaws before them translated and passed messages as needed. The listening Germans would have no clue as to what “posah-tai-vo” meant (crazy white man) or whom it could be referring to (Adolf Hitler).

In the Pacific theater, a World War One veteran, Philip Johnston, who had once acted as an interpreter between President Theodore Roosevelt and leaders of the Navajo tribes, began a campaign to use the Navajo language as a code.

The problem was to convince other officers who hadn’t seen or heard of the Choctaw Code Talkers to take the idea seriously. Eventually, Johnston was able to convince Major General Clayton Vogel to give him a chance to put on a demonstration at Camp Elliot (near San Diego) in February 1942.

Navajo volunteers were used for this demonstration and they were given typical types of military messages to translate from English into Navajo. These translated messages would be sent into another room where the receiving Navajo man would translate the message back into English. This entire process was found to take only a few seconds.

To prove his point, Johnston would have the same message sent by the military code machine in which the translation time was at times more than thirty minutes. Seeing the possibilities but still remaining skeptical, the Marines agreed to enlist Johnston and 30 Navajos to try their “code” in actual combat.

In May 1942 twenty-nine Navajos entered boot camp and later went to Camp Pendleton to develop the actual code. They worked at finding new words or meaning for military terms, which had no actual Navajo translation as well as an alphabetical way of spelling out other words.

While this was going on, Vogel was able to convince the Marine Corps commandant to begin recruiting 200 to 300 Navajos into the Marines. These new recruits would have a seemingly insurmountable task ahead of them.

The Navajo language had only been orally handed down through the centuries, and in 1942, it was estimated only 30 non-Navajos were fluent in the language, and none of these were Japanese. This oral teaching of the language didn’t change for the new recruits.

Each code talker would be required to memorize the entire code. No codebooks or written aids would be allowed. As each code talker completed his training, he would be shipped to a Marine unit in the Pacific.

Eventually there would be over 400 Marine code talkers who would play a vital part in the United States winning the war against Japan. In fact, these code talkers would participate in every assault the Marines took part in from late 1942 to 1945. It has been said battles such as Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Peleliu would have had a different outcome if not for the Navajo code talkers.

During the three years, the Navajo code talkers participated in the war, Japanese Intelligence was able to break almost every U.S. Army and Army Air Corps code, but not once were they able to break the Navajo code.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.