Monday, April 16, 2012

N is for Navajo Code Talkers

This is a tribute statue to the Navajo Code Talkers.  It sits on the corner of one of the busiest intersections in  Phoenix.
 I drive by this every morning on my way to work.
Photo Credit: tceng

The Navajo Code Talkers came from many states, but since the Navajo Nation resides mostly within the borders of Arizona, I am claiming them for my Arizona series.  Although remote, I have a personal connection to one of the code talkers.  My sister-in-law's father is one of the few code talkers who is still living.  Lee Begay entered the Marine Corps when he was still a teenager. Today he lives on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona.  In my eyes he is an American hero, I thank him for his service and dedicate this post to him.

Communication during war time is critical.  The need to stay in touch with everyone is vital to the success of any campaign.  Codes were always essential to battalions and ships staying in contact with one another.  However, many times the enemy was able to break the code, rendering it useless.

In 1942, Philip Johnston thought he had the solution.  He was the son of a Protestant missionary and spent much of his childhood on the Navajo reservation.  He grew up with the Navajo children and learned their customs and language.  As an adult he often gave lectures on the Navajos.  He read a story about an armored division in Louisiana that was trying to come up with a way to code military communications using Native American personnel.  The article gave him an idea which he pitched to an officer at Camp Elliot in San Diego.  The officer was skeptical because similar codes had failed.  Native Americans had no words in their language for military terms.  The Navajos had no need in their vocabulary for terms like tank and machine gun.  Often, when languages add new terms they absorb the new term.  For example, in German the word for computer is computer.  This officer worried that this would happen with the new terms that the Navajo would need for the code.  But Johnson had another idea.  Instead of adding the terms directly they would designate one or two words already in the Navajo language to represent the military terms.  An example of this is the word machine gun, it became rapid-fire gun in Navajo.  Battleship became whale and fighter plane became hummingbird.

Johnston's plan was demonstrated to Major General Clayton B. Vogel.  Vogel was impressed and sent a letter to the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.  He recommended that they enlist 200 Navajos for the assignment.  They were only given permission to start a pilot program with 30 Navajos.

Recruiters visited the Navajo reservation and selected the first 30 code talkers.  29 completed the program.  2 stayed behind to train others and 27 were sent to Guadalcanal to be the first to use the new code in combat.  Johnston volunteered to enlist so he could take over the training program.  At the end of the war 420 Navajo men worked as code talkers.  They had to memorize the entire code (no code books were allowed outside the training areas) and learn to speak it to each other in stressful situations.  During the Battle of Iwo Jima they sent and recieved 800 messages, all without error.  The commander said had it not been for the code talkers, the battle would have been lost.

These recruits were young and had never been off the reservation.  Adjustment to military life was hard but they persevered, and worked around the clock to help create and learn the code.  And even though the history between the Native Americans and the United States was not a good one, they put that aside and proudly answered the call to serve.  They served with dignity and honor.  They helped win the war.  The code was never broken.

I think what the Navajo men did to help win the war is truly amazing.

See you all tomorrow!


  1. How have I not found your blog before today??? I used to live in AZ and absolutely LOVE it. Many of my novels take place in Phoenix.
    We now live in SW CO and often drive through the Navajo reservation to and from. I am definitely backtracking to read all your entries!!!

    1. Hi Susan! Always nice to connect with another Arizonan. I hope you enjoy the rest of the posts. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Great theme! Good luck with the rest of the alphabet.

  3. Hi Gerri, the Navajo Code Talkers is an amazing story from WWII. And it wasn't that long removed from the atrocities their tribes endured when they were at war and displaced from their traditional lands. So we were very fortunate the Navajo people were willing to help!