On Veterans Day, Navajo Code Talkers honored

On Veterans Day, Navajo Code Talkers honored

By Zachary Roth

Navajo Code Talkers

During World War II, Navajo members of the Marine Corps used a code based on their native language to allow platoons to communicate without Japanese intelligence agents being able to decipher what they were saying. This Veterans Day marks official recognition of the Navajo “Code Talkers” and their crucial part in the war effort.

A group of Code Talkers rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange this morning, and the state of New Mexico dedicated a stretch of highway to them yesterday, reports USA Today.

The idea for the Code Talkers is said to have come from Philip Johnston, the son of a Protestant missionary who grew up on the Navajo reservation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, in the “four corners” region of the Southwest. Johnston, who spoke the language, convinced the Marines to enlist Navajo recruits, and to use the language  — for which no books exist — as a secure communications tool.

In 1942, a group of 29 Navajo devised the complex code, assigning Navajo words for each letter of the English alphabet; they also adapted the Navajo vocabulary to describe weapons and form combat-related phrases. The Navajo word for tortoise, for instance, “chay-da-gahi,” meant tank, and “ne-he-mah,” which means our mother, meant America.

In the Pacific Theater, where platoons often lacked sophisticated communications equipment and made hard landings on beaches, the code was especially useful, Geoffrey Wawro, a military historian, told the paper. The Japanese never cracked it.

“It helped reduce Marine casualties,” said Wawro.

The military trained 400 Navajo Code Talkers, but fewer than 100 are believed to be alive today. Two of them, Keith Little and Frank Chee Willetto, are now working with a foundation to raise money for a Code Talkers museum and veterans center.

The Code Talker initiative didn’t mark the only Navajo contribution to the war effort. War planners used uranium from Navajo mines to build the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the same uranium reserves went into the postwar arms buildup against the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. Years after the mines closed, rates of cancer and other deadly diseases shot up among the tribe — something that researchers have linked to radioactive contamination on large parts of the reservation. Only in the last few years has the government begun to make significant reparations to the Navajo.

(Photo: AP/Seth Wenig)

Picture of two Navajo code talkers in Australia during World War II.

Navajo code talkers (and cousins), Preston and Frank Toledo at Ballarat, Australia. (July 7, 1943)

Picture from the Smithsonian, courtesy of the National Archives.

Code talker




From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Code talkers was a term used to describe people who talk using a coded language. It is frequently used to describe Native Americanswho served in the United States Marine Corps whose primary job was the transmission of secret tactical messages. Code talkers transmitted these messages over military telephone or radio communications nets using formal or informally developed codes built upon their native languages. Their service was very valuable because it enhanced the communications security of vital front line operations during World War II.

The name code talkers is strongly associated with bilingual Navajospeakers specially recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in their standard communications units in the Pacific Theater. Code talking, however, was pioneered by Choctaw Indians serving in the U.S. Army during World War I. These soldiers are referred to as Choctaw Code Talkers.

Other Native American code talkers were used by the United States Army during World War II, using CherokeeChoctawLakota[1]Meskwaki, and Comanche soldiers. Soldiers of Basque ancestry were used for code talking by the US Marines during World War II in areas where other Basque speakers were not expected to be operating.

Use of Cherokee

The first known use of Native Americans in the American military to transmit messages under fire was a group of Cherokee troops utilized by the American 30th Infantry Division serving alongside the British during the Second Battle of the Somme. According to the Division Signal Officer, this took place in September 1918. Their outfit was under British command at the time.[2]

Use of Choctaw




Choctaws in training in World War I for coded radio and telephone transmissions.

In the days of World War I, company commander Captain Lawrence of the U. S. Army overheard Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb conversing in the Choctaw language. He found eight Choctaw men in the battalion.[3] Eventually, fourteen Choctaw men in the Army’s 36th Infantry Division trained to use their language in code. They helped the American Expeditionary Force win several key battles in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in France, during the final big German push of the war. Within 24 hours after the Choctaw language was pressed into service, the tide of the battle had turned. In less than 72 hours the Germans were retreating and the Allies were in full attack.[3]

These soldiers are now known as the Choctaw Code Talkers.

Use of Comanche

File:Comanche Code Talkers.jpg



Comanche code-talkers of the 4th Signal Company (U.S. Army Signal Center and Ft. Gordon)

File:Comanche codebook 2.jpg



Hugh F. Foster Jr.‘s Comanche code book

Adolf Hitler knew about the successful use of code talkers during World War I. He sent a team of some thirty anthropologists to learn Native American languages before the outbreak of World War II.[4] However, it proved too difficult for them to learn the many languages and dialects that existed. Because of Nazi German anthropologists’ attempts to learn the languages, the U.S. Army did not implement a large-scale code talker program in the European Theater. FourteenComanche code talkers took part in the Invasion of Normandy, and continued to serve in the 4th Infantry Division during further European operations.[5] Comanches of the 4th Signal Company compiled a vocabulary of over 100 code terms using words or phrases in their own language. Using a substitution method similar to the Navajo, the Comanche code word for tank was “turtle”, bomber was “pregnant airplane”, machine gun was “sewing machine” and Adolf Hitler became “crazy white man.”[6]

Two Comanche code-talkers were assigned to each regiment, the rest to 4th Infantry Division headquarters. Shortly after landing on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, the Comanches began transmitting messages. Some were wounded but none killed.[6]

In 1989, the French government awarded the Comanche code-talkers the Chevalier of theNational Order of Merit. On 30 November 1999, the United States Department of Defensepresented Charles Chibittywith the Knowlton Award.[6][7]

Use of Meskwaki

Meskwaki men used their language against the Germans in North Africa. Twenty-seven Meskwaki, then 16% of Iowa’s Meskwaki population, enlisted in the U.S. Army together in January 1941.[8]

Use of Basque

Captain Frank D. Carranza conceived the idea of using the Basque language for codes in May 1942 upon meeting about 60 US Marinesof Basque ancestry in a San Francisco camp.[9][10][11] His superiors were justifiably wary. There were 35 Basque Jesuits in Hiroshima, led by Pedro Arrupe. In China and the Philippines, there was a colony of Basque jai alai players and there were Basque supporters ofFalange in Asia. The American Basque code talkers were kept from these theaters; they were initially used in tests and in transmitting logistic information for Hawaii and Australia.

On August 1, 1942, Lieutenants Nemesio Aguirre, Fernández Bakaicoa and Juanna received a Basque-coded message from San Diego for Admiral Chester Nimitz warning him of the upcoming Operation Appleto remove the Japanese from the Solomon Islands. They also translated the start date, August 7, for the attack on Guadalcanal. As the war extended over the Pacific, there was a shortage of Basque speakers and the parallel Navajo program came to be preferred.

Use of Navajo

File:General douglas macarthur meets american indian troops wwii military pacific navajo pima island hopping.JPG


General Douglas MacArthur met withNative American code talkers in late 1943. Pictured: one man each from the Pima,Pawneeand Chitimacha peoples, and twoNavajo men.




Page one of Navajo recommendation letter, 1942.




Page two of Navajo recommendation letter, 1942.

Philip Johnston proposed the use of Navajo to the United States Marine Corps at the beginning of World War II. Johnston, a World War I veteran, was raised on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary to the Navajos, and was one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. Because Navajo has a complex grammar, it is not nearly mutually intelligible enough with even its closest relatives within the Na-Dene family to provide meaningful information, and was an unwritten language, Johnston saw Navajo as answering the military requirement for an undecipherable code. Navajo was spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest, and its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. One estimate indicates that at the outbreak of World War II fewer than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language.[citation needed]

Early in 1942, Johnston met with Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and his staff. Johnston staged tests under simulated combat conditions which demonstrated that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds, versus the 30 minutes required by machines at that time. The idea was accepted, with Vogel recommending that the Marines recruit 200 Navajos. The first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp in May 1942. This first group then created the Navajo code at Camp PendletonOceanside, California.[12]The Navajo code was formally developed and modeled on the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet that uses agreed-upon English words to represent letters. As it was determined that phonetically spelling out all military terms letter by letter into words—while in combat—would be too time consuming, some termsconceptstactics and instruments of modern warfare were given uniquely formal descriptive nomenclatures in Navajo (the word for “potato” being used to refer to a hand grenade, or “tortoise” to a tank, for example). Several of these portmanteaus (such as gofasters referring to running shoes, ink sticks for pens) entered Marine corps vocabulary and are commonly used today to refer to the appropriate objects.

A codebook was developed to teach the many relevant words and concepts to new initiates. The text was for classroom purposes only, and was never to be taken into the field. The code talkers memorized all these variations and practiced their rapid use under stressful conditions during training. Uninitiated Navajo speakers would have no idea what the code talkers’ messages meant; they would hear only truncated and disjointed strings of individual, unrelated nouns and verbs.

File:Code Talkers.jpg



Code Talkers Monument Ocala, FloridaMemorial Park.

The Navajo code talkers were commended for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. These six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor later stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”[12]

As the war progressed, additional code words were added on and incorporated program-wide. In other instances, informal short-cut code words were devised for a particular campaign and not disseminated beyond the area of operation. To ensure a consistent use of code terminologies throughout the Pacific Theater, representative code talkers of each of the U.S. Marine divisions met in Hawaii to discuss shortcomings in the code, incorporate new terms into the system, and update their codebooks. These representatives in turn trained other code talkers who could not attend the meeting.

The deployment of the Navajo code talkers continued through the Korean War and after, until it was ended early in the Vietnam War.

Cryptographic properties

This section duplicates, in whole or part, the scope of other article(s) or section(s).
Please discuss this issue on the talk page and conform with Wikipedia’s Manual of Style by replacing the section with a link and a summary of the repeated material, or by spinning off the repeated text into an article in its own right. (September 2010)



Navajo code talkers, Saipan, June 1944

Non-speakers would find it extremely difficult to accurately distinguish unfamiliar sounds used in these languages. Additionally, a speaker who has acquired a language during their childhood sounds distinctly different from a person who acquired the same language in later life, thus reducing the chance of successful impostors sending false messages. Finally, the additional layer of an alphabet cypher was added to prevent interception by native speakers not trained as code talkers, in the event of their capture by the Japanese. A similar system employing Welsh was used by British forces, but not to any great extent during World War II. Welsh was used more recently in theBalkan peace-keeping efforts for non-vital messages.

Navajo was an attractive choice for code use because few people outside the Navajo themselves had ever learned to speak the language. Virtually no books in Navajo had ever been published. Outside of the language itself, the Navajo spoken code was not very complex by cryptographic standards and would likely have been broken if a native speaker and trained cryptographers worked together effectively. The Japanese had an opportunity to attempt this when they captured Joe Kieyoomia in the Philippines in 1942 during the Bataan Death March. Kieyoomia, a Navajo Sergeant in the U.S. Army, but not a code talker, was ordered to interpret the radio messages later in the war. However, since Kieyoomia had not participated in the code training, the messages made no sense to him. When he reported that he could not understand the messages, his captors tortured him.[13] Given the simplicity of the alphabet code involved, it is probable that the code could have been broken easily if Kieyoomia’s knowledge of the language had been exploited more effectively by Japanese cryptographers. The Japanese Imperial Armyand Navy never cracked the spoken code.

Post-war recognition




Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Navajo code talkers in 2000

File:Navajo Code Talker Monument.JPG



Monument to Navajo code talkers in Window Rock, AZ

The code talkers received no recognition until the declassification of the operation in 1968.[14] In 1982, the code talkers were given a Certificate of Recognition by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who also named August 14, 1982 “Navajo Code Talkers Day”.[15][16]

On December 21, 2000 the U.S. Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, Public Law 106-554, 114 Statute 2763, which awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to twenty-nine World War II Navajo code talkers. In July 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush personally presented the Medal to four surviving code talkers (the fifth living code talker was not able to attend) at a ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. Gold medals were presented to the families of the 24 code talkers no longer living.[17]

On September 17, 2007, 18 Choctaw code talkers were posthumously awarded the Texas Medal of Valor from the Adjutant General of the State of Texas for their World War I service.[18] On December 13, 2007, H.R. 4544, the Code Talker Recognition Act, was introduced to the House of Representatives. The Code Talker Recognition Act recognizes every code talker who served in the United States military with a Congressional Gold Medal for his tribe, and a silver medal duplicate to each code talker, including eight Meskwakis.[19]

Popular culture

The 2002 movie Windtalkers was a fictional story based on Navajo code talkers who were enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. The movie was criticized for featuring the Navajo characters only in supporting roles, not as the primary focus of the film.[20] The film’s plot was fabricated about white bodyguards being ordered to kill them should they fall into enemy hands.[21] It was further criticized for its use of stereotypes of both Native Americans and east Asians.[22]

The 1959 movie Never So Few features Charles Bronson as Sgt. John Danforth, a Navajo code talker.


A historical fictional book,”Code Talker”, portrays a Navajo boy serving in the USMC with some of his Navajo friends in the Pacific Theater in World War II.

Private First Class Preston Toledo (left) and Private First Class Frank Toledo, cousins and Navajos, attached to a Marine Artillery Regiment in the South Pacific will relay orders over a field radio in their native tongue.

Aug 1943

GUADALCANAL WASHDAY — On the banks of the famous Tenaru River, where some of the bloodiest fighting of the South Pacific War took place last year, Private First Class LeRoy John, 20, a member of U.S. Marine Corps, presents an incongruously placid picture as he goes through that domestic task of washing clothes with a hand operated “state-side” washing machine. This photo was taken a year after the first Marines landed here and is indicative of the completeness with which Marines have secured this island against any possible Japanese threat to retake it. John is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Eticitty Begay of Shiprock, New Mexico.

June 1943 Photog: Howard
Private First Class Peter Nahaidinae (left), Private First Class Joseph P. Gatewood and Corporal Lloyd Oliver, Navajo Indians, attached with the 1st Marine Division in the Southwest Pacific, study a night problem at the Amphibious Scout School conducted by the Intelligence Section. The Indians are considered particularly valuable in their work as members of a signal company.

Aug 17, 1943
Photog: Salvatore Gatto, 1st Raider

Three of the Navajo Marines who served with the Marine Raiders on New Georgia as communicators, sending battlefront messages in the Navajo language, which the Japanese found impossible to decode. Left to right, they are: Private First Class Edmond John of Shiprock, New Mexico; Private First Class Wilsie H. Bitsie, Mexican Springs, New Mexico, and Private First Class Eugene R. Crawford of Chinle, Arizona.


Dec 1943 Photog: Hanks

NAVAJO MARINES – (Front Row) Privates Earl Johnny, Kee Etsicitty, John V. Goodluck and Private First Class David Jordan. (Back row) Privates Jack C. Morgan, George H. Kirk, Tom H. Jones and Corporal Henry Bahe, Jr., Navajo Indians, are serving with a Marine Signal Unit.


Two Indian Marine observers on hill overlooking Garapan while manning their observation post. Pfc. Jack Nez of Fort Defiance, Ariz. and Pfc. Carl Gorman of Chinle, Ariz.

27 Jun 44 Photog: Szarka
Two Indian Marine observers on hill overlooking Garapan while manning their observation post. Pfc. Jack Nez of Fort Defiance, Ariz. and Pfc. Carl Gorman of Chinle, Ariz.


June 27, 1944
Pfc. Carl Gorman of Chinle, Arizona, who manned an observation post on a hill overlooking the city of Garapan while the Marines were consolidating their positions on the island of Saipan, Marianas.


Marine Pfc. Cecil G. Trosip of Oraibi, Arizona at communication system on Saipan.


NEW MEXICAN MARINE INDIANS. These New Mexicans, serving with the veteran First Marine Division, played an important part in maintaining communications during the Peleliu campaign. Front row, left to right: Pfc. James T. Nahkai, of Ship Rock; Pfc. John H. Bowman, of Tohatchi; Pfc. Ira Manuelito, of Tohatchi; Pfc. Jimmy King, of Ship Rock; Pfc. Andrew Calleditto, of Crownpoint; Pfc. Lloyd Betone, of Crownpoint; Cpl. Lloyd Oliver, of Ship Rock. Rear row, left to right: Pfc. Preston Toledo, of Crownpoint’ Cpl. John Chee, of Ship Rock; Pfd. Sandy Burr of Ship Rock; Pfc. Ben Manuelito, of Tohatchi; Pfc. Dan Daiya, of Gallup; Pfc. Edward Lueppe, of Tohatchi; Pfc. Del Cayedito, of Crownpoint; and Pfc. Ralph Cayedito, of Crownpoint. Lueppe, the Cayedito brothers and Manuelito, played football and basketball together at the Fort Wingate, N.M. Indian School. King held the Colorado State boxing championship at 118 lbs in 1940. In the foreground, commending them for their work is Lieutenant Colonel James G. Smith, signal officer for the First Marine Division.

Hdqtrs. No 101511

1st MarDiv
4/6/1945 Photog: McElroy

Private Jimmy D. Benallie stands in front of a shop beneath a Japanese sign.

USMC #117725

Pvt. Leslie Hemstreet of Crystal, New Mexico, a Navajo Marine, is shown beating a drum at this shrine.

Pearl Harbor
2 Mar 47
PEARL HARBOR, T.H. (Delayed) – Marine Privates First Class Alec E. Nez, Flagstaff, Ariz., left, and William D. Yazzie, Shiprock, N.M., recently participated in the Marine Corps Pacific Division Rifle and pistol matches at Puuloa Point, T.H. Both Marines fired a total score of 545 out of a possible six hundred, but Yazzie fired a higher score the second day and placed third while Nez placed fourth. Yazzie received a gold medal, Nez the first silver medal. The presentations were made by Brigadier General H. D. Linscott, Commanding General, Marine Garrison Forces, Pacific. Yazzie and Nez were two of the men chosen to represent the First Marine Division in the San Diego and Quantico, Va., matches.


PEARL HARBOR, T.H. – Marine Corporal William D. Yazzie, son of Mrs. Paul Wilson of Shiprock, N.M., awaits his turn on the firing line at Puuloa Point rifle range near Pearl Harbor. Corporal Yazzie was selected from among the best marksmen in his unit in China to participate in the preliminary firing of the Marine’s Pacific Division rifle and pistol competition being held currently. Leathernecks representing all Pacific units from Hawaii to China and Japan are firing, preparatory to the final competition in the Pacific matches which will be held at the end of February. The top marksmen of the meet will go to San Diego to fire in the Bear Trophy match and later to Quantico, Va., for the Marine Corps matches. Corporal Yazzie, a former student of Shiprock high school, enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 1941. A veteran of three Pacific campaigns, he won a gold medal with the rifle and a silver with the pistol at last year’s Pacific shoot. Before coming to Hawaii, Yazzie was stationed with the Fleet Marine Force.


1st MarDiv
Ballart, South Pacific
7 July 1943

Corporal Lloyd Oliver, a Navajo Indian, operates a field radio while attached to a Marine Artillery Regiment in the South Pacific. Cpl. Oliver also is a sniper and a highly regarded scout.


Dec 1943

Corporal Henry Bahe, Jr. (left) and Private First Class George H. Kirk, Navajos serving with a Marine Signal Unit, operate a portable radio set in a clearing they’ve hacked in the dense jungle close behind the front lines.


Enroute to Okinawa
Photog: CSP Zerbe (NAVY)

MARINE RADIO MESSENGERS — (L to R) Private First Class Hosteen Kelwood, Private Floyd Saupitty and Private First Class Alex Williams are on their way to the Japanese war front. PFCs Williams and Kelwood are Navajos and Private Saupitty, a Comanche. They are veterans of Peleliu.

5 Mar 48
Pearl Harbor, T.H. — Marine Corporal William D. Yazzie, son of Mrs. Paul Wilson of Shiprock, N.M., is congratulated by Major General Samuel L. Howard, commander of Marine Garrison Forces, Pacific, who presented the Corporal with a temporary certificate in lieu of the bronze rifle medal which he won in the Pacific Division rifle and pistol matches held recently at Puuloa Point rifle range on the island of Oahu. Corporal Yazzie, who had been stationed Tsingtao, China, fired in competition with nearly 100 other Marine shooters from units throughout the Pacific. A veteran of three Pacific campaigns, Cpl. Yazzie enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 1941.


See also




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