Navajo Code Talkers: the Unspoken Heroes of World War II

Last Updated: 25 May 2023
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It’s a normal day in June 1944 and we were located on the Pacific Island of Saipan. As were walking through the lush, tangled wilderness with dense sugar-cane, steep ravines and jagged volcanic mountains, there was no such thing as a battle line for us soldiers. Danger was everywhere. The unseen enemy could be hidden by the thick tropical vegetation and the pitch black darkness of the new mooned night. Our eyes where constantly looking from the left to the right as we crossed by the walls of caves looking at the trees sprouting out of them for barrels pointing back.

When we would stop for the night, we cherished the passing day, for we know tomorrow could be our last. One morning as we woke up from our uncomfortable beds, the ground, we noticed a silence along the enemy front. Carefully we scouted the terrain. They were gone. The Japanese had abandoned the area and retreated to new ground. As we inspected the area where they once occupied, suddenly artillery shells exploded all around us. I jumped to the ground as shrapnel exploded and flew overhead striking the tree that was behind me. We were being attacked. Not by the Japanese, but from our own guns.

The radioman started shouting, “We are Americans! Stop The Artillery! ” Nothing stopped, for the artillery commanders faced a known problem. The Japanese were far more fluent in English then we were in Japanese and have been known to send out faulty reports in perfect English. They thought it was just an enemy trick. “Stop Firing! We are Americans! ” was echoed through the radio, each one more desperate then the last. Finally, a message was sent back, “Do you have a Navajo? ” I was rushed forward, almost swept off my feet. Handing over my rifle to the radioman and started talking code.

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Within seconds the artillery stopped (Bruchac 2005, 135-7). This was a reenactment of an incident involving the United States marines during World War II. Sixteen-year-old Ned Begay, a Native American Navajo from Arizona, was at this fire fight on Bougainville, an area of Saipan, where U. S. troops fired on their own solders, not knowing that they were not the enemy. If it wasn’t for the Navajo code talker, more men would have died that day. This paper will cover many topics about the Navajo code talkers, including how they were formed, how the code was used to save American lives throughout the war.

Finally, I will talk about what happened to the after the war. By providing this information, I how that it will strike a new incite of what the unspoken heroes of World War II went through. During the beginning of World War II, the Japanese was able to break every code that the United States created. The Japanese had more solders that were fluent in English, making it easy to crack the codes and create false orders that would sent our solders to their death. While the U. S. military was struggling with a way to find an unbeatable code, a civilian came up with the answer.

Philip Johnston, a civil engineer for the city of Los Angles, came across a news article stating that the military had an armored division in Louisiana that was using Native American languages for secret communications. Philip Johnston, son of William and Margaret Johnston, was a Protestant missionary to the Navajo for many years. Philip had spent his childhood with the Navajo and was one of the few outsiders to be fluent in the Navajo language.

At an early age, he served as a translator for his parents and for other outsiders and by the age of nine, Philip traveled to Washington D. C. to translate for a Navajo delegation that asked President Theodore Roosevelt to look into the governments treatment of the Navajos and their neighbors (AAaseng 1992, 18). Philip knew that the Navajo language was virtually impossible for an adult to master. Every syllable in the Navajo language had to pronounce correctly. Of one was to change the tone of the syllables, the word could have a completely different meaning, causing the sentence to misunderstood. This was due to the Navajo uses of four different tones, low, high, rising, and falling (AAaseng 1992, 18).

Johnston had learned how secret codes where essential for military operation while enlisted with the French during World War I. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that it would work. In February of 1942, Johnston met with Lieutenant Colonel James Jones, a signal officer, and was greeted with uncertainty and misbelieves. Johnston pointed out that knowledge of other Native American languages would be of no use to the enemy in understanding the Navajo language. Navajos where so isolated from the world that the language was as foreign to other tribes as it was to outsiders.

In addition to this, the Navajo language was a spoken language and had no alphabet and there for couldn’t be reduced to a written format that can be studied afar. After many hours of arguments and demonstrations, in March 1942, he was able to present a demonstration to an audience that included Major General Vogel and Colonel Wethered Woodward from the marine headquarters in Washington D. C. Johnston was able to gain the cooperation of four Navajos living in the Las Angeles area and a Navajo who was enlisted with the marines (AAaseng 1992, 21).

He divided the four Navajos into two groups and had the sent messages back and forth, while the Navajo marine was attempting to translate the messages. After the demonstration, the Navajo Marine was unable to translate a signal word. General Vogel was so impressed that in February 1942, just two months after the booming of Pear Harbor, Philip Johnston was asked to prepare a proposal for organizing and using the Navajo code Talkers. In May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp. They were known as the “first 29. ” At Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, this first group created the Navajo code.

They developed an elaborate dictionary and hundreds of words for military terms [ (Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet n. d. ) ]. The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized during training for the Navajos where not allowed to write down any of of the code. Furthermore, while enlisted, they were not allowed to write to their families for fear that the letters would be used to try to break the code. Once the Navajo code talker completed his training, he was sent to a Marine unit who was deployed in the Pacific.

The code talkers' primary job was to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios. They also acted as messengers, and performed general Marine duties. While in combat, it was rumered that for each code talker, there was an officer assigned to protect him from cabture. If for any reason that the officer felt that the code would fall into enamy hands, the officer was ordered to kill the code talker to protect the code. One of the great triumphs for the Navajo code talkers was the battle at Iwo Jima in February of 1945.

The island was so small that on most maps you couldn’t see the island at all. Although small, this island was of great importance. The new boomers that the United States were using, the B-29, was flying a 3000-mile round-trip when booming Japan. Due to the length of this trip many pilots where getting shot down. Iwo Jima was the answer. Iwo Jima would be able to be used as an emergency landing field to assist the pilot’s chances. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo Code Talkers [ (Bingaman n. d. ) ]. The Major estimated that it would only take ten days, at the max, to win the battle.

A month later, in March, was the island declared secure. By the end of the battle, the Navajo code talkers send and received over 800 messages, all without error, 6,800 U. S. soldiers died and nearly 20,000 more where wounded. Major Connor declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima" [ (AAaseng 1992, 88-97) ]. September 2, 1945 aboard the battleship A. S. S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the surrender from the Japanese was signed and World War II was officially over. The Navajo code was unable to be broken throughout the war.

Because of this the code was classified as Top Secret and would remain so for over twenty years after the end of the war. It wasn’t until 1968 that the code was declassified and the Navajo code talkers would be able to tell their story. 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” [ (Jr. n. d. ) ]. On December 21, 2000, 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 at a ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. Gold medals were presented to the families of the 24 code talkers that where no longer with us [ (Gray 2001) ]. For many the Navajo code talkers played an important role in World War II. From when Johnston realized how the Navajo language would benefit America, the formation of the code, and how long it would take for the Navajo to be recognized for their part in the war, the Navajo where truly the unspoken heroes of World War II.

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Navajo Code Talkers: the Unspoken Heroes of World War II. (2017, Mar 29). Retrieved from

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