Remembering Navajo Code Talkers

14 Aug 2006 | Lance Cpl. Patrick M. Fleischman

On July 28, 1982, President Ronald Regan declared Proclamation 4954 creating National Navaho Code Talkers Day shedding light on a little know group who played a critical role in the pacific during World War II.

The ‘code talkers’ were U.S. Marines who spoke Navajo, a Native American language Japanese code breakers were unable to decipher.
Fighting in Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima the code talkers translated radio-transmitted orders issued from code talkers at command posts to provide orders quickly to the front.

According to the Department of the Navy Historical Center, the story begins with Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajos and one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently, developed the idea to use Navajo for secure communications.
Johnston, raised on the Navajo reservation, was a World War I veteran who knew of the military's search for a code that would withstand attempts to decipher it.
In 1942, Johnston met with Marine Corps Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and staff to convince them of the Navajo language's value as code.

Johnston staged tests under simulated combat conditions, demonstrating that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Convinced, Vogel recommended to the commandant of the Marine Corps that the Marines recruit 200 Navajos.
In May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp. Then, at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, this first group created the Navajo code, which included a dictionary and numerous words for military terms.

Memorizing the dictionary and all code words was required during training. Upon completion, Navajo code talkers were sent to a Marine unit deployed in the Pacific theater.
When a Navajo code talker received a message, they heard a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words.

The code talker first had to translate each Navajo word into its English equivalent. Then he used only the first letter of the English equivalent in spelling an English word.
Thus, the Navajo words "wol-la-chee" (ant), "be-la-sana" (apple) and "tse-nill" (axe) all stood for the letter "a." One way to say the word "Navy" in Navajo code would be "tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)."

Most letters had more than one Navajo word representing them and not all words were spelled out letter by letter.

The developers of the original code assigned Navajo words to represent about 450 frequently used military terms that did not exist in the Navajo language.
Several examples of common phrases are "besh- lo" (iron fish) meaning "submarine," "dah-he- tih-hi" (hummingbird) meaning "fighter plane" and "debeh-li-zine" (black street) meaning "squad."

The declassification of the code in 1968 led to the story of the code talkers to reach the public.

The Department of Defense on Sept. 17, 1992 honored the Navajo code talkers for their contributions with an exhibit in the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.