November 11th has long been the day set aside to recognize the contributions military veterans have made to the security and grandeur of our country. Unfortunately, because of cultural differences and military classification, some veterans have not received the recognition and honor they deserve.
The Navajo Code Talkers were essential to victory in the Pacific Theater during WWII. And it has only been since their role has been declassified in 1968 that their story is starting to be heard.
The Code Problem
In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces were having difficulty because Japanese intelligence was able to break every code they used. Increasingly complicated codes were devised, but leaders in the field began to complain that the codes were too complex—it was taking hours to encrypt and decrypt messages. Finding a code that was indecipherable to the Japanese but easy to use in the field was essential to the success of American efforts in the Pacific.
The Code Solution
A civilian came up with the solution of using the Navajo language for code. Phillip Johnston was the son of a Protestant missionary who had grown up on a Navajo reservation. He was one of less than 30 non-Native people who was fluent in the Navajo language. Because he understood how difficult the language was to master, he saw potential for an indecipherable code. After demonstrating how the language could be used to top military commanders, he was given the green light for a pilot program. The first elite unit of Navajo Code Talkers—29 young men—was formed.
As it turns out, some of the Navajo men who enlisted in the Code Talker program were as young as 15. Many had never been off the reservation.
The Hybrid Code
The code devised and used by the Code Talkers was a combination of both Navajo words used to describe military terms and Navajo words used to spell out terms for which there was no direct Navajo-English equivalent. For example, the Navajo word for turtle/tortoise, “chay-da-gahi,” was used for “tank”; chicken hawk, “gini,” was used for “dive bomber.” When necessary, they would spell out words using a Navajo word that corresponded to an English word that began with the same letter—e.g. the letter “A” may have been indicated by the Navajo words “wol-la-chee” (ant), “be-la-sana” (apple) or “tse-nill” (ax).
The code devised by the Navajo Code Talkers is the only code in modern military history that has never been broken. The success of the code saved thousands of lives of American troops engaged in the Pacific.
When WWII ended, Navajo Code Talkers were not recognized for their part in the success of Allied Forces. The code was still classified, and so was the involvement of all Code Talkers. It would be more than 20 years after WWII ended that the code would be declassified and Navajo Code Talkers recognized for their contributions.
Today, there are few surviving Code Talkers. Most are in their 80s and 90s. But there is a foundation working to build a National Navajo Code Talkers Museum & Veterans Center. The museum would be a monument to the invaluable role a select group of Native American Indians played in WWII. If you want to learn more about the Navajo Code Talkers and want to support the fundraising efforts for the museum, please visit the Official Website of the Navajo Code Talkers.