Seventy-eight years ago, the first Navajo Code Talkers began their basic training in the Marine Corps.
Per Task and Purpose, "Early on the morning of May 4, 1942 the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers boarded a bus at Fort Defiance and headed for Fort Wingate near Gallup, New Mexico. After lunch in the dining hall at Fort Wingate, the Navajo recruits were sworn into the U.S. Marine Corps."
It was Philip Johnston, a veteran of WWI and the son of a missionary who grew up on a Navajo reservation, who convinced Marine Maj. Gen. Clayton Vogel that the Navajo language could be used to transmit coded messages. Johnston maintained that the Navajo language was isolated enough that few outside the tribe could understand it.
Using native American languages to transmit military messages wasn’t a new idea. Choctaw for example, was used during World War I. The Marine Corps, needed an “unbreakable” code for their campaign in the Pacific and there were concerns that some of the previously used languages may have been studied by the Germans and Japanese between the wars. The unwritten language of Navajo seemed to fit the bill.
Just because someone understood Navajo didn’t mean they could decipher the code. Messages could be translated into a seemingly unconnected list of words – but only a Code Talker would understand a very clear message.
The first 29 Navajos were recruited to develop the code in 1942. Their “Type One Code” assigned a Navajo word to each English letter. They also created special words for planes, ships and weapons. “Fighter plane” became “hummingbird.” “Turtle” became “tank.” “”Battleship” became “whale.”
Carl Gorman was one of the first Navajo to join up. “For us, everything is memory, it’s part of our heritage. We have no written language. Our songs, our prayers, our stories, they’re all handed down from grandfather to father to children -- and we listen, we hear, we learn to remember everything. It’s part of our training.”
Navajo code might be: DIBEH, AH-NAH, A-SHIN, BE, AH-DEEL-TAHI, D-AH, NA-AS-TSO-SI, THAN-ZIE, TLO-CHIN
Which translated to: Sheep, Eyes, Nose, Deer, Blow up, Tea, Mouse, Turkey, Onion
Meaning: SEND DEMOLITION TEAM TO …
It was a brilliant low-tech solution to a very sophisticated problem. Along with being unbreakable, the Navajo code greatly reduced the time it took to transmit and receive secret messages. All 17 pages of Navajo code had to be memorized, eliminating the need for coding machines to encrypt and decipher messages. The Code Talkers cut the time to send and receive one message from minutes to seconds.
Per the U.S. Department of Interior website, "Other branches of the military recruited Native Americans from the Assiniboine, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Choctaw, Comanche, Cree, Crow, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Meskwaki, Mississauga, Muscogee, Osage, Pawnee, Sac and Fox, Seminole and Sioux tribes to create similar military codes based on their own languages."
"Fighting in the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Tinian, Saipan and the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Code Talkers saved lives by signaling enemy movements, transmitting orders and coordinating attacks under fire."
Maj. Howard Cooper, a signal officer commanding the Code Talkers, said “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
While their accomplishments were significant, the Native American Code Talkers received no recognition at home for decades. Their code and actions remained classified until 1968, and it wasn’t until 2001 that the original 29 Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, while the remaining members were awarded the Silver Medal.
We salute these warrior heroes!
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