Every war involved the use of transmitting highly sensitive and valuable information like attack plans, routes, important operations, and whatnot. Signal interception became a thing that both sides had to come up with undecipherable codes, so enemies could listen to their coded messages as much as they wanted, but they would not be able to decipher what they were talking about. Remember the seemingly uncrackable Enigma code of the Germans? At the beginning of World War II, the US Army knew who to turn to for an unbreakable code that would help them transmit and protect their operational plans: the Navajos.

Birth of the Idea

The idea of using the Navajo language came from World War I veteran Philip Johnston in 1942. He was the son of a missionary who lived in the Navajo Nation. That was where he grew up and became familiar not only with the people but also with their language. According to the National Archives and Records, the idea came to him while reading a newspaper story about how the Army used several Native Americans as signalmen against the Germans to transmit messages about supply and ammunition shortages during training maneuvers with an armored division in Louisiana.

And so he went to the Naval Office in Los Angeles, California, to let them know of his suggestion. He was then referred to Major James Jones at Camp Elliot in San Diego. He was skeptical upon hearing the suggestion, but Johnston spoke a few Navajo words to him, so he asked to do a trial run with Navajo people to see how it would turn out.

And so Johnston assembled a team of four Navajos in the Los Angeles area in a span of two weeks that he arranged to meet up with Major Jones. On February 27, 1942, they went to Camp Elliot and did a demonstration the very next day. Before his arrival at the camp, Johnston had already sent a preliminary report outlining why he thought the Navajos were the best to be recruited as signalmen. Among the reasons was that the Navajo language was complex and that it was mostly “unwritten because an alphabet or other symbols of purely native origin” was nonexistent, except for a few that were adapted by American scholars, anthropologists, and Franciscan Father who compiled a Navajo dictionary.

Successful Training

On March 6, 1942, Major General Clayton Vogel sent out a letter expressing his support to recruit 200 Navajo men as code talkers for the US Marines. The demonstration of four Navajo speakers was a success. On May 5, 1942, the first 29 Navajos arrived at the Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, to undergo basic training before moving to Fleet Marine Force Training Center at Camp Elliot, where they received rigorous training in transmitting messages and instruction in radio operation. A special system was designed for the cod talkers, mostly by assigning a Navajo word to key military phrases and tactics. The system also enabled them to translate three lines of English in 20 seconds instead of 30 minutes, which was common with code-breaking machines at that time.

Navajo Dictionary. (National Archives)

Battle of Iwo Jima

The Navajo Code Talking training proved to be a success, and 200 more were recruited after. As the war progressed, about 400 Navajos were recruited and trained in the code. They participated in all major Marin operations in the Pacific theaters, providing their comrades with a critical advantage.

Navajo Code Talkers, Saipan, June 1944
Navajo Code Talkers, Saipan, June 1944. (US Navy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

They were part of the nearly month-long battle of Iwo Jima, where six Navajo Code Talker Marines successfully transmitted greater than 800 messages without a single mistake. How they did it was that one person would operate the portable radio while another person would relay and receive messages in the Navajo language and translate the coded messages into English. The Japanese soldiers targeted officers, medics, and radiomen that, at one point, they managed to capture and torture Sergeant Joe Kieyoomia. Once they figured he was a Navajo, they forced him to decode the messages they managed to intercept. He tried, but since he was not trained in the code, the decoded messages that he read were indecipherable garble of words.

As 5th Marine Division Signal Officer Major Howard Connor said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”