Magazine, website & books written by teens since 1989

Heroes in the Shadows

Custom User Avatar
More by this author
The day after the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, American officials could see hundreds of Navajo Indians lined up in the reservation. When asked what they were doing, they simply said that they were going to fight for their country. This surprised some Americans, as the relationship between them and the Native Americans weren’t always friendly, even though the Navajo Nations pledged support for the United States in June of 1940, should the US decide to go to war. They weren’t the only ones; two years later in 1942, the Iroquois Confederacy, Ponca, Osage, Dakota, and Michigan Chippewa nations all declared war on the Axis. The Navajos played a very different role, though. They were recruited to develop a code based on their language, and then use that code out in the open field.

The main job of the Navajos was to develop a code that was simple, but unbreakable. In the 1940’s, the US military had developed wireless radios, but the Japanese were able to listen in, so a simple, unbreakable code became essential. A Los Angeles engineer, Philip Johnston, was the one who proposed the idea of constructing a code based on the Navajo language. Because he was the son of missionaries working with Navajos, he had learned the language, and knew how hard it was to learn. This is because it has no written form and each syllable, as well as different tones and pronunciations, convey a different meaning. At first, US officials were doubtful because they had tried using other Native American languages in codes, but the Japanese started learning them to crack the codes. However in 1941, there were only 28 people outside of the Navajo tribe who knew the language—none of them Japanese or German. In April of 1942, 29 Navajos were recruited as the first code talkers. After going through boot camp and learning the basics of communication, wire laying, pole climbing, and radio repair, they were given a list of 211 words, which they needed to come up with a code for. The Navajos decided on a relatively simple code where the Navajo word for “ant” stood for the letter “A”, the word “bear” stood for “B”, “cat” stood for “C”, and so on. Other words were derived from nature; for example, “shark” in Navajo meant destroyer, “egg” meant bomb, and “our mother” meant America. This was used to form a code so effective that the best intelligence officers, even Navajos, couldn’t crack it. Because of the code’s success, Philip Johnson was put in charge of drafting and training new Navajo recruits while the original 29 Navajos would see how it worked in the open field.

This new Navajo code was first tested in field in August 1942 at Guadalcanal. The Navajos were often part of the first wave of troops because they had to set up the radios and get ready for transmission. They needed to carry 80-pound radios over swampy land through the hot, steamy jungles, but since they had a great deal of stamina and perseverance, they were able to adapt. After setting up the antenna, the words “New Mexico” or “Arizona” would mean that a message would be transmitted in Navajo code. When the code was first heard over the radio, it caused panic because the radio operators thought that the Japanese were sabotaging them. Other marines didn’t trust the code, saying it was too simple and fast. Others still weren’t sure what the Native Americans were meant to do and often assigned them tasks that were completely irrelevant. The code talkers had to be assigned bodyguards, though, mainly because they were sometimes mistaken for Japanese due to their dark skin, dark hair, and high cheekbones. Some of the radio operators said that the Navajos were “more trouble than they were worth”. However, by the end of 1942, the leader of the troops asked for 83 more code talkers, and by 1943, the US Navy also requested some. There were two code talkers assigned to each battalion, usually good friends, or cousins because they would practice talking in code together. Perhaps the most successful victory involving the code talkers was in February of 1945, the assault on Iwo Jima and flag raising on Mount Suribachi. Because it was close to Japan, both sides needed the island. However, the US troops would have to get through the 22,000 Japanese soldiers fiercely defending it. Six code talkers stayed up all night for the first two nights sending approximately 800 messages without error. Howard Connor, the 5th Marine Division signal officer said "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

The Navajo Indians played a tremendous role in the victory of World War II. From making the undecipherable code to sending messages on the battlefield, the Battle of the Pacific could not have been won without these brave people. What was once a 200-word code used by 29 people had become a 600-word code used by over 400 people. Even though this code saved thousands of lives, not everything went smoothly once the war was over. It was hard for the Navajos to return to the reservation because they were plagued by bad memories and no longer had the same equality that they had on the battlefield, especially since it was decided that they were to be kept a secret. Because no one ever managed to crack the code, the Navajo code talkers weren’t publically recognized, in case there was another use for the code in further wars. Later in 1968, it was declassified, and in 1969, the code talkers were finally honored at the reunion of the 4th Marine Division Association. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed a motion that made August 14 National Navajo Code Talker’s Day. On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush awarded Congressional gold medals to the five remaining survivors of the original 29 code talkers, and to the families of the ones who died. Later in 2001, all of the 400 some Navajo code talkers received silver Congressional medals, and were finally given their rightful place in history.



Daily, Robert. The Code Talkers. New York: Franklin Watts, 1995. Print.
Holm, Tom. Code Talkers and Warriors. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2007. Print.
Jones, Catherine. "Code Talkers." World Book Student. 2009. World Book Online.

Web. 20 Oct. 2009.
Santella, Andrew. Navajo Code Talkers. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Compass Point Books, 2004. Print.



Post a Comment

Be the first to comment on this article!




Site Feedback