Navajo Code Talkers, America's Secret Weapon
By: John Shepler
Private First Class Mitchell Bobb had the weight of the battalion on his shoulders that day. The message he spoke into the field telephone was almost certain to be intercepted by German troops who had tapped their lines and knew every move of the American forces whom they surrounded. To Ben Carterby, stationed at headquarters, Bobb spoke the message intended for the Battalion Commander, certain that it would remain a secret. He was right. To the listening Germans it sounded like someone had scrambled the transmission. But that was impossible. Voice scrambling technology wouldn't be available for decades. How were they doing it?
This secret of Carterby and Bobb turned the tide of the battle within 24 hours after they implemented their "scrambled" voice messages. Within 72 hours the Germans were in retreat, and the Allies had taken the offensive. The amazing invention they deployed that day had no new technology at all. The men were simply speaking in their native Choctaw language. The Choctaw Code Talkers saved their battalion and invented secure communications in the closing days of World War I. It was to remain their secret, however, as the Armistice was signed and the Chocktaw men returned to their reservations.
Twenty five years later, America was embroiled in another World War. Again, it was a war with few secrets. Allied Intelligence had broken the German and Japanese communications codes. But the Japanese had also broken every code the Americans thought up. Many of the top Japanese code breakers had been educated in the United States and were savvy even to local references and slang that the American forces tried to use to disguise their intentions. Perhaps the Choctaw Code Talkers might have had some success again, but there had only been eight of them in that test of World War I and they had long since been forgotten...or had they?
Seventeen Comanches were assigned to the Comanche Signal Corps of the Army and, like the Chocktaws before them, passed messages among themselves that could not be understood by the Germans. Little did the Germans listening-in realize that the words posah-tai-vo meant crazy white man, and were used to identify none other than Adolph Hitler.
The most ambitious effort to employ native languages as secret codes was championed by Philip Johnston. Johnston was a World War I veteran who had come by covered wagon to settle on Navajo land in northern Arizona with his missionary family. By age 9, he had gained such proficiency in Navajo language that he acted as interpreter between two Navajo leaders and President Theodore Roosevelt when they met in 1901. Johnston had heard of the Choctaw Code Talkers, and he was convinced that the Navajo language would also be nearly impossible for an enemy to understand. After all, he was one of perhaps 30 non-natives who understood the complex and subtle Navajo expressions. Now, all he needed to do was convince the skeptical military that he had the answer to their security problems.
Johnston did convince Lt. Col. James E. Jones, a Marine signal officer, to let him put on a demonstration at Camp Elliott, near San Diego, in February of 1942. Navajo volunteers translated typical military messages from English to Navajo, and sent the messages to another room where other Navajos translated them back to English within 20 seconds. Using coding machines to convey the same messages took 30 minutes. The Marines agreed to enlist Johnston and 30 Navajos to try their system in actual combat...but it had to be foolproof. Allied forces in the Pacific would be staking their lives on the security of the orders sent via the Code Talkers.
Carl Gorman was one of the Navajos sent to Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942. As a young boy attending school at the Rehoboth Mission in Chinle, Arizona, he had been locked in chains in the school basement for refusing to speak English instead of Navajo. With Japanese forces sweeping over Guadalcanal and listening to every Marine radio frequency, Gorman and his friends William Yazzie, Jack Nez and Oscar Ilthma called in artillery fire and provided status reports in what again sounded like gibberish to the enemy.
The Japanese cracked every code that the Army and Navy came up with , but not the Navajo code. Navajo is a spoken language handed down orally from generation to generation. The Code Talkers created a system of native words to represent characters of the English alphabet, so that they could spell out English words that had no Navajo equivalent. They also assigned their own expressions, like iron-fish to mean submarine, for over 400 important military terms. Each Code Talker memorized these special words. There were no written materials that could be captured.
Joe Kieyoomia, a Navajo soldier who was not trained as a Code Talker, was captured and survived the Bataan Death March, only to be tortured into trying to decode intercepted Marine communications. Left standing naked in the snow, feet frozen to the parade ground, he couldn't confess to what he didn't understand. The secret code made no sense, even to another Navajo.
It was said by high military officers that the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima without the Navajo Code Talkers, and World War II might have had a different outcome without their contribution. The 400 Navajos who were recruited and served as Code Talkers came home from the war and went through special native ceremonies called the "Enemy Way" to exorcise them of the painful memories of hand to hand combat and ghosts of the dead. Incredibly, one of America's most valuable secret weapons had been developed thousands of years before there even was a United States. It was the power of the Native American Language.
Note: We were saddened to learn that Chester Nez, last of original Navajo code talkers, passed away on June 4, 2014 at the age of 93. His important contribution to the nation, as well as that of the other code talkers, will always be remembered.
Books of Interest:
Unsung Heroes of World War II: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers by Deanne Durrett. Describes the role of a select group of Navajo Marines who developed a code based on their own native language that provided a means for secure communications among American forces in the Pacific during World War II.
Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers by Kenji Kawano, Foreword by Carl Gorman. Kenji was hitch hiking on the Navajo reservation in 1974 when Carl Gorman picked him up. He started photographing the Code Talkers and in 1980 they named him their official photographer and honory member of the Code Talkers Association. Interestingly, his father had been a Japanese soldier in World War II in the South Pacific.
Power of a Navajo: Carl Gorman, the Man & His Life by Henry Greenberg, Georgia Greenberg, R. C. Gorman (Introduction). Besides being the oldest of the Navajo code talkers in WWII, Carl Gorman was an acclaimed artist, teacher, community leader and became president of the Code Talkers' Association. His son, R. C., wrote the introduction to the story of his father, a true American hero.
The Code Talkers American Indians in World War II by Robert Daily. Military success in World War II hinged in part upon creating unbreakable codes while deciphering those of the enemy. Ironically, the most successful codes used by the U.S. Armed Forces had been spoken by American Indians for centuries. This book documents the courage of the American Indians who wielded their native languages to save lives in World War II.
Winds of Freedom the Story of the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II by Margaret T. Bixler.
Also visit these related sites:
Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary - The official declassified document from the Department of the Navy.
Southwest Indian Foundation - Featuring Books, videos, prints, and even a GI Joe Navajo Code Talker who speaks in both Navajo and English. This organization's mission is to lessen the poverty and unemployment among the Indians of the Southwest through self-help initiatives.
Histor eSearch.com - A comprehensive online history research resource intended for use by students, educators and history buffs.
(c) 1999 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: May 9, 1999 as part of A Positive Light