Navajo History: Navajo Code Talkers

America entered World War II on December 7th 1941, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Communications among the Allied Forces, from ship to ship and battalion to battalion was of vital importance to coordinate battle plans and tactical information. To protect these communications, secret codes were created by the Allied armies so that the enemy would not be aware of America’s troop movements. These ciphers were eventually broken by the Japanese and vital military secrets lost to the other side.

In 1942, Philip Johnston, who had spent much of his childhood on the Navajo reservation, remembered how flexible, descriptive and intricate the Navajo language was, and suggested that the army create a new cipher based on the Navajo language. To make this code indecipherable, the Navajo language was used without using English words for any military apparatus, but would use a description of the item. 450 frequently used military terms that had no equivalent in the Navajo language were given descriptive names. For example, submarine was “besh- lo” (iron fish); a fighter plane was “dah-he- tih-hi” (hummingbird); a dive bomber was “Gini” (chicken hawk), and America was “Ne-he-mah” (Our mother).

Military recruiters visited the Navajo reservation and first selected thirty young Navajo men to assist in the program’s creation. Because many of these men had never lived off the reservation, military life was particularly difficult. These Navajo Code Talkers realized the importance of the program to winning WWII and they worked tirelessly to perfect the code. The first battle they were involved in was Guadalcanal, where they both fought as soldiers and transmitted secret tactical matters between American troops. The code was never written down on the battlefield, so the Code Talkers had to be fully trained in the code to be able to instantaneously relay information with perfect accuracy, or men’s lives would be in jeopardy.

Code Talkers were part of all U.S. military campaigns in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. Thousands of American soldiers’ lives were saved due to the unbreakable Navajo code. It is believed that one of the most important Pacific military campaigns, the battle of Iwo Jima, would not have been won by the U.S. without the Navajo Code Talkers’ accurately and safely relaying important military secrets.

The Navajo cipher code was so impressive that the military thought they might use the Navajo code system in the future. Because of this, the Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy, until 1968 when the code was declassified. Finally, in 2001, the Code Talkers received the recognition that they deserved from a grateful U.S. government: the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Navajo Code Talkers played an important role in the Allied success in the Pacific during WWII. They created a code the enemy was unable to decipher and, in doing so, helped the United States win World War II.

Lena Carr, Emmy Winner and Navajo filmmaker created War Code: Navajo, along with producer Amy Wray.  This film won the 1995 News and Documentary Emmy and was considered Outstanding Historical Programming.  Please click below to see a short clip of this moving documentary about the Navajo Code Talkers.