Navajo Code Talkers, America's Secret Weapon How the Navajo and Choctaw Languages
Scrambled Secret Military Communications in WWII
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.