Fighting Words: The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II
While names like Patton, Hitler, and Churchill occur frequently in discussions of World War II, relatively few people mention names like John Brown, Chester Nez, Lloyd Oliver, or Allen Dale June. Yet all of these men, and hundreds more, were key figures in bringing the Allied forces to victory. As members of the Navajo Nation, they were recruited for an audacious project, forming a network of communications operators who transmitted information through their unique and unwritten language. These “Code Talkers,” as they came to be known, occupied the front lines of major battles in the Pacific, allowing the U.S. military to send important messages in near-total secrecy. [...]
The project got its start in the early 1940s with Philip Johnston, an American World War I veteran who grew up on a Navajo reservation, where his father was a missionary. After spending his childhood on the reservation, Johnston was familiar with the Navajo language, a complicated spoken tongue understood by fewer than about 28 people – mostly anthropologists and missionaries – outside of the Navajo Nation. He even served as an interpreter, at age 9, for Navajos meeting with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, in which the Navajos lobbied for better conditions for their people.
One day in 1942, Johnston was reading a newspaper article about an armored division in Louisiana looking to develop a code based on a Native American language. He thought that Navajo might be just the language they were looking for. [...]
Language from another Native American tribe, the Choctaw, had been used during World War I under a similar belief it would be difficult for the enemy to understand. It had been employed with great success near the end of the war, but in the years that followed, the Germans had gone on to pose as students and anthropologists in the United States in an attempt to learn Choctaw, as well as Cherokee and Comanche. It was possible they were now capable of breaching another indigenous tongue. [...]
Johnston contacted four Navajo men and brought them to Camp Elliott, just outside San Diego, on February 27, 1942, for the demonstration. The next day, Vogel gave the team six messages and 45 minutes to figure out a method for encryption. When he returned, the men were able to create a code in Navajo, relay it, decode it, and recite it back in English, all in a matter of minutes. Military encryption machines could take hours. [...]
Portions of the code were relatively straightforward. The Navajo used words for birds to describe specific aircraft. A fighter plane was da-he-tih-hi, the Navajo word for “hummingbird.” A bomber plane was jay-sho, or “buzzard.” A patrol plane was ga-gih, or “crow.”
For military terms that had no obvious correlation, the team used a words-for-letters system, with one or more words assigned to each letter of the English alphabet. [...] The variety offered additional protection against a breach in security. [...]
After the war’s end, it would be nearly 25 years before the Code Talkers’ mission was declassified and the Navajos’ efforts would become part of the historical record. [...] Traditionally silent about their contributions, the Navajos were able to take their rightful place among the giants of the war, speaking the words that helped end one of the greatest
conflicts in modern history. Their code was never breached.
“Fighting Words: The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II”, Jake Rossen, Mental Floss, 2019.