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Code Talkers

“Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
--Major Howard Conner, 4th Marine Division Association Reunion, Chicago 1969

By Suzanne Stamatov

When armies and marines engage in combat, they need a communications system to remain in contact with their fellow troops and their commanders. Yet that system only proves advantageous if its messages are encoded and incomprehensible to the enemy. During World War II (WWII), cryptologists worked intensely to create codes that would remain indecipherable. Concurrently, cryptologists worked tirelessly to break the enemies’ codes. Once a cryptologist cracked a code, that side gained incalculable advantage over the adversary. The British, for example, broke the German Enigma coding system. After the British captured an Enigma machine from a German submarine in 1941, Alan Turing, working at Bletchley Park—the British cryptographic center used a prototype computer to try millions of possible combinations of letters before finally deciphering the German code. With the code cracked, the British knew in advance the placement of German troops, ships, and aircraft, giving them advantages in many engagements including the Battle of Britain and the Battle of El Alemain.

The Japanese code-breakers ably deciphered the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Corps codes, but could not break the U.S. Marine’s code. The Marine code was in the Diné language, created by Navajo Marines. Its use in the Pacific during WWII proved invaluable to the Americans. Code talkers monitored battles to relay enemy positions and movements, helped direct firing, and sent for supplies, reinforcements or medical help. One code talker of the Third Marine Division, George H. Kirk Sr., remembered: “The Japanese were preparing to attack an American installation on Guam. Our Marine reconnaissance found their location and the code talkers sent a message to a battleship and two artillery units to tell them where the target was. The Japanese were wiped out and our commander, Major General Erikine, was saved by our language.”

The success of the Diné code rested on the fact that at the beginning of WWII the language was unwritten and very few non-Navajos spoke the language. One of the few bilagaana (non-Navajos) who could speak Diné was Philip Johnston. A son of missionaries, he grew up in Luepp, Arizona, playing with Navajo children. A veteran of World War I, Johnston knew that American Indian code talkers had operated during the first World War. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he read in a newspaper that the U.S. Army was experimenting with Indian code talkers. It occurred to him that Diné might work as a code. Johnston took the idea to Major James E. Jones of the Marine Corps at Camp Elliot, California. The major secured him an audience with Major General Clayton B. Vogel of the Pacific Fleet.

Johnston tracked down four Navajos working in the Los Angeles area and drove them to Camp Elliot. General Vogel gave some commands to two of the Navajo men and asked them to transmit the message over a field telephone to the other two men, located in a distant office. The men translated Vogel’s message into Diné, communicating it to the other men. They, in turn, translated the message back into English and gave it to Vogel. Vogel was thoroughly impressed. The whole process had taken a few minutes rather than the several hours it took to employ the cumbersome encoding process with a coding machine. General Vogel believed that Navajo code talkers could play a key role in the anticipated amphibious landings and jungle warfare in the Pacific. He recommended that the Commandment of the Marine Corps begin by recruiting 200 Navajo code talkers.

The Commandment called for a pilot project of thirty code talkers and sent a recruiter, Sergeant Frank Shinn, to the Navajo Reservation. In 1942, 50,000 Navajos lived on the reservation that covers northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, and a part of southern Utah. Most Navajos lived in hogans, with few modern amenities, earning their living by sheep herding. They exchanged wool and the rugs they wove for any necessities at the local trading posts.

Shinn’s first wave of recruits mostly came from the government boarding schools in Shiprock and Fort Wingate, New Mexico and Fort Defiance, Arizona. Before the 1940s, the U.S. government required Navajo youth to attend the boarding school in an effort to assimilate the Navajos and to weaken Navajo culture. The schools forbade the speaking of Diné. If teachers caught students speaking it, they punished them, washing their mouths’ out with soap. One Navajo Code Talker, Carl Gorman, remembered a teacher chaining him to an overhead pipe in his school’s four-foot high basement for a week for speaking Diné.

Ironically, when Shinn listed his requirements to the students, he insisted that they be able to speak Diné, as well as English. Recruits also had to be between seventeen and thirty years of age, to have a tenth grade education, and to speak in a clear voice. Shinn received 200 applications and chose twenty-nine men who were highly intelligent and had a deep understanding of the Navajo culture. Once selected, the men went to boot camp in San Diego.

The Marine Corps trained the future code talkers as marines. The command expected the Navajos to carry out the duties expected of the marines and prepared them for combat missions. The recruits learned to use a carbine, assemble and fire a machine gun, and throw grenades. During the two-month-long-training course, five to ten percent of all recruits left. Of the twenty-nine Navajo recruits, not a single man dropped out. Many of the men were used to a rigorous life, herding sheep on the desert. One Navajo stated: “This Marine stuff is nothing compared to the hell we had to take in the boarding schools.” When the twenty-nine men completed basic training, the commanding officer of the training base, Colonel James L. Underhill, addressed the all-Navajo platoon: “Yours has been one of the outstanding platoons in the history of the Recruit Depot and a letter has gone to Washington telling of your excellence. . . . You are now to be transferred to a combat organization where you will receive further training. When the time comes for you to go into battle with the enemy, I know that you will fight like true Navajos, Americans, and Marines.”

The further training that the colonel spoke of was in communications. At Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, the Navajos learned Morse code, semaphore flags, and blinker signals, and how to operate field radios. After they mastered that, they went to a special code-talkers school. On the first morning, an officer told them that they were to be code talkers in Diné in the upcoming invasions of the Pacific isles. This was the first time the men learned of their important, top-secret mission. The officer ordered them to devise a code and left them to it.

The reason that Shinn had required recruits to speak fluently in both English and Diné became apparent. Using their creativity and keen knowledge of Navajo culture, the twenty-nine set to work, devising a code. First, they had to create a vocabulary in Diné for words that did not exist in that language. They took familiar Diné words and named ships after fish, planes after birds, and land objects after animals. A dive-bomber, for example, was named chicken hawk, gini. They carefully chose words that had distinct sounds and standardized voice inflection in order to avoid any mistakes under combat conditions. All in all, in the first eight weeks that it took to conceive of the code, they created 211 military code words that needed to be memorized.

The original code talkers also created an alphabet so that place-names in English could be spelled out letter by letter in Diné. Code-breakers often count words and letters in order to decipher the code. To confound the Japanese, the Navajos created two additional words for the six most commonly-used letters. The code talkers translated the English letter “a”, for example, as the Diné word for ant or apple or axe. Moreover, they created a code within a code, making it even more complex. Finally, the original twenty-nine finished and memorized the entire code. Then twenty-seven code talkers shipped out to Guadalcanal in order to test the code in combat conditions. Two of the best code talkers, John Benally and Johnny Manuelito stayed behind and served as instructors for the newly recruited Navajo who would also become code talkers. By the end of the war, the marines had recruited and trained 420 code talkers.

Once the Marine’s commanders recognized the utility of the code, they constantly employed it. The code talkers were in constant danger. The Japanese had highly effective tracking equipment. When they heard a transmission, they would pinpoint its source and then bomb it. Navajo Bill Toledo remembers the time he transmitted a message on 11 November 1943. He radioed: “To all units: Japanese are booby-trapping personal equipment, installations, and bivouacs—Over.” In less than thirty seconds, he had received and relayed the message. “I had received the warning message and passed it along to the rear units, shut off my radio, and only moved about ten yards when a Japanese mortar hit the exact spot from which I had just sent the message. One of the first things they teach you in the field training exercise is to send, receive, ‘Roger’ the message, and move!” The code talkers learned that exercise quickly.

The code talkers also faced danger from their fellow marines. Marines who did not know the code talkers sometimes mistakenly identified them as Japanese. One time, several marines mistook Bill Toledo for a Japanese soldier and “captured” him. The marines brought him before the battalion commander who told the soldiers that Bill really was a marine. The commander then assigned Richard Bonham to be Toledo’s body-guard. The commanders valued their code talkers and did not want anyone to harm them.

Throughout the war, the Navajos’ special assignment remained hidden; most marines knew nothing about the code. When the 4th Marine Division Association held its reunion in Chicago in 1969, the association invited a group of code talkers to the reunion. There the association presented the code talkers with a medallion specially minted in commemoration of their services. It was fitting that the marines were the first to recognize publicly the code talkers’ contributions. The Navajo Code Talkers saved countless marines’ lives by creating the code and transmitting it quickly and accurately. When Major Howard Conner explained how the marines had taken Iwo Jima, he pointed to the key part played by the code talkers. “During the first forty-eight hours, while we were landing and consolidating our shore positions, I had six Navajo radio networks operating around the clock. In that period alone, they sent and received more than 800 messages without an error.” He concluded: “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

Sources Used:

Cave, Dorothy. Four Trails to Valor: From Ancient Footprints to Modern Battlefields: A Journey of Four People. Las Cruces, Yucca Tree Press, 1997.

Rogers, Everett M. and Nancy R. Bartlit. Silent Voices of World War II: When Sons of the Land of Enchantment Met Sons of the Land of the Rising Sun. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2005.

Kawano, Kenji. Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers. Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Publishing Company, 1990.