History of the Code Talkers

Updated: Aug 9

In 1942, 29 Navajo men joined the U.S. Marines and developed an unbreakable code that would be used across the Pacific during World War II. They are the Navajo Code Talkers.

The Navajo Code Talkers participated in every assault the U.S. Marines led in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima. The Code Talkers conveyed messages by telephone and radio using aspects of their native language, a code that the Japanese never broke.

Navajo Code Talker Peter MacDonald, Sr, remarked during an appearance at the White House in 2017, "In the early part of World War II, the existing military code used in the Pacific was compromised, creating a huge problem for strategizing against the enemies. In early 1942 the Navajo language was recommended as an altenative communication strategy."

How did the Navajo Code Talkers start?

The idea for using the Navajo language as a military code came from Philip Johnston in 1942. He was a World War I veteran and the son of a missionary who lived on the Navajo Nation. According to the National Archives and Records, Johnston got the idea after reading an article about how the Army used Native American soldiers as signalmen during training maneuvers.

His experience growing up with the Navajo language and culture led him to suggest it be used as a military code, noting that the language was unknown among other tribes and the public. Johnston went to the Naval Office in Los Angeles, California, and was referred to Major James E. Jones at Camp Elliot in San Diego. Jones was skeptical about the idea until Johnston spoke a few Navajo words to him and was asked to do a trial run with Navajo people.

The 382nd Marine Platoon was made up of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. Nichael Nez/Special For the Republic

The 382nd Marine Platoon was made up of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. Nichael Nez/Special For the Republic. On March 6, 1942, Major Gen. Clayton B. Vogel issued a letter supporting an effort to recruit 200 Navajo men for the U.S. Marines. He stressed that the Navajo language is complex and mainly remained unwritten. Vogel's recommendation came after successful tests of the Navajo language were conducted at Camp Elliot in San Diego, California, on February 28, 1942, when four Navajo speakers demonstrated sending and receiving six messages coded in the Navajo language.

The initial recruitment of Navajo Code Talkers was approved. Still, the Navajo men would have to meet the regular qualifications for enlistment, go through the seven-week training and meet the linguistic requirements of both English and Navajo.

On May 5, 1942, 29 Navajo men arrived at the Recruit Depot in San Diego for basic training. Intensive courses followed where the 29 recruits developed the code that would eventually be taught to the future Navajo Code Talkers.

What was the Navajo code?

The Navajo code comprised words selected from the Navajo language and applied to military phrases. The initial code featured 211 terms; during World War II, it expanded to 411. The Navajo language has no military terminology, and most of the code developed was new and instilled with military meaning. For example, the Navajo word used for ships was "Toh-Dineh-ih," which means Sea Force.

The Navajo Code Talkers developed an alphabet system using Navajo words and code terms. When translated into English, the Navajo words would spell out one of the 26 letters in the alphabet. Before the end of the war, the alphabet was expanded to 44 words by assigning more words to frequently repeated letters.

Who were the original Code Talkers?

In 1942, the U.S. Marines recruited 29 Navajo men to be Navajo Code Talkers. Each recruit had to meet Marine's general qualifications and be fluent in Navajo and English. The recruits were brought to the Recruit Depot in San Diego on May 5 for seven weeks of basic training. Once finished, the soldiers were moved to Fleet Marine Force Training Center at Camp Elliott in San Diego. The 29 men underwent intense special courses for message transmissions and radio operations and developed the code used during the war.

The first 29 Navajo Code Talker recruits being sworn in at Fort Wingate, N.M., in 1942. U.S. National Archives & Records

The first 29 Navajo Code Talker recruits were sworn in at Fort Wingate, N.M., in 1942. U.S. National Archives & Records

The original 29 Navajo Code Talkers were Charlie Sosie Begay, Roy Begay, Samuel H. Begay, John Ashi Benally, Wilsie Bitsie, Cosey Stanley Brown, John Brown Jr., John Chee, Benjamin Cleveland, Eugene Crawford, David Curley, Lowell Damon, George Dennison, James Dixon, William McCabe, Carl Gorman, Oscar Ilthma, Allen June, Alfred Leonard, James Manuelito Sr., Chester Nez, Jack Nez, Lloyd Oliver, Frank Pete, Balmer Slowtalker, Nelson Thompson, Harry Tsosie, John Willfe Jr., and Yazzie William.

Why were the Navajo Code Talkers so effective?

The Navajo Code Talkers were successful because they provided a fast, secure, and error-free line of communication by telephone and radio during World War II in the Pacific. The 29 initial recruits developed an unbreakable code, and they were successfully trained to transmit the code under intense conditions.

MacDonald said that half of the 29 were shipped overseas to join the first division of the U.S. Marines because they were prepping their first offensive move in the Pacific arena, which was on Guadalcanal.

Once the Navajo Code Talkers proved to be successful in the field, more were recruited. Over 400 Navajo men were estimated to serve as Code Talkers during World War II.

On August 7, 1942, MacDonald said that the first Marine division hit the beaches of Guadalcanal with 15 Navajo Code Talkers. "This was the first battle where the Navajo code would be tested in actual battle."

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