From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Code Talkers

During World War II, U.S. Marines storming Pacific beaches used a unique kind of code machine. Each Marine Corps cryptograph had two arms, two legs, an M-1 rifle and a helmet. Their code name was Dineh—“the People.” In English, they were called the “Navajo Code Talkers,” and theirs is one of the few unbroken codes in military history.

Like all Americans of his generation, Keith Little, who is a Navajo, remembers exactly where he was when he heard the news of Pearl Harbor. Little, then sixteen, was attending boarding school on the reservation in Arizona.

“Me and a bunch of guys were out hunting rabbits with a .22,” he recalls. “Somebody went to the dorm, came back and said, ‘Hey, Pearl Harbor was bombed!’

“One of the boys asked, ‘Where’s Pearl Harbor?’

“‘In Hawaii.’

“‘Who did it?’


“‘Why’d they do it?’

“‘They hate Americans. They want to kill all Americans.’

“‘Us, too?’

“‘Yeah, us, too.’”

Then and there, the boys made a promise to one another. They’d go after the Japanese instead of the rabbits.

The next morning, the superintendent of the reservation looked out his office window and saw dozens of ponytailed young men carrying hunting rifles, ready to fight. But the Navajo volunteers were sent home. No official call to arms had been issued, and besides, most of the men spoke only Navajo.

When the war broke out, a man named Philip Johnston had an extraordinary idea. Johnston, the son of missionaries, also grew up on the reservation and was fluent in Navajo. Early in 1942, he visited the Marine Corps’s Camp Elliott, north of San Diego, and proposed to use the Navajo language as an up-to-date code, guaranteed unbreakable.

The Marines were skeptical at first. At the time, military codes were encrypted by high-tech black boxes that used rotors and ratchets to shroud messages in a thick alphabet soup. Still, Johnston returned with a few Navajo friends. For fifteen minutes, while the iron jaws of Marine brass went slack, messages metamorphosed from English to Navajo and back.

In the spring of 1942, Marine recruiters came to the Navajo Nation in the mile-high Southwest desert. There, among the sagebrush and sandstone, they set up tables, called them enlistment offices and began looking for a few good men fluent in Navajo and English.

Fewer than eighty years had passed since the Navajos had fought against the U.S. military. Kit Carson’s scorched-earth campaign had broken their resistance in 1864. Why would men volunteer to fight for a nation that had humbled their ancestors, killed their herds and wouldn’t even let them vote?

Soldiers enlist for reasons of jobs, adventure, family tradition—and patriotism. Says one Navajo who fought in World War II, “This conflict involved Mother Earth being dominated by foreign countries. It was our responsibility to defend her.”

Few Navajos had ever been off the reservation. Mostly, they had only met “Anglos” on trading posts. Soon they would fight across an ocean they had never seen, against an enemy they had never met. Yet they proved to be model Marines. Accustomed to walking miles each day in the high desert, they marched on with full packs after others buckled. When training was finished, the first group of Navajos became the 382nd Platoon, USMC, and was ordered to make a code.

On the reservation, the language was primarily oral, and the Code Talkers were told to keep it that way. There would be no code books, no cryptic algorithms. Navajo itself was puzzling enough. Germans deciphering English codes could tap common linguistic roots. Japanese eavesdropping on GIs were often graduates of American universities. But Navajo, a tonal language, was known to few outsiders. Its vowels rise and fall, changing meaning with pitch. A single Navajo verb, containing its own subjects, objects and adverbs, can translate into an entire English sentence.

To devise the code, the Navajos turned to nature. They named planes after birds: gini—chicken hawk (dive bomber); neasjah—owl (observation plane); taschizzie— swallow (torpedo plane). They named ships after fish: lotso—whale (battleship); calo—shark (destroyer); beshlo— iron fish (submarine).

To spell out proper names, the Code Talkers made a Navajo bestiary, turning the Marines’ Able Baker Charlie . . . into Wollachee Shush Moasi . . . (Ant Bear Cat . . . They also played word games. “District” became the Navajo words for “deer ice strict,” and “belong” became “long bee.”

The finished code was a hodgepodge of everyday Navajo and some four hundred newly devised code words. As a test, Navy intelligence officers spent three weeks trying, and failing, to decipher a single message. New Navajo recruits untrained in the code could not break it. Yet it seemed too simple to be trusted. And while codes normally took hours to translate, these Indians were encoding and decoding sensitive military information almost instantly. What kind of magic was this?

“In Navajo, everything—songs, prayers—is in memory,” said William McCabe, one of the code’s designers. “That’s the way we was raised up. So we didn’t have no trouble.”

Two Code Talkers stayed behind to teach the next group; the rest were shipped to Guadalcanal. There, Code Talkers met skepticism in the flesh. One colonel agreed to use the Navajos only if they won a man-versus-machine test against a cylindrical gizmo that disguised words and broadcast in coded clicks. The Code Talkers won handily. Still, officers were reluctant to trust lives to a code untested in combat.

More than 3,600 Navajos served in World War II, but only 420 became Code Talkers. In boot camp, Keith Little was just another Indian, and few cared from which tribe. Then a drill instructor took him aside and asked, “By any chance, are you a Navajo?” He was sent to Code Talkers’ school.

Eventually, Marine commanders came to see the code as indispensable for the rapid transmission of classified dispatches. Lent to the Navy, the Code Talkers kept the Japanese from learning of impending air attacks. On Saipan, an advancing U.S. battalion was shelled from behind by “friendly fire.” Desperate messages were sent, “Hold your fire,” but the Japanese had imitated Marine broadcasts all day. Mortar crews weren’t sure what to believe. The shelling continued. Finally, headquarters asked, “Do you have a Navajo?” A Code Talker sent the same message to his buddy, and the shelling stopped.

During the first two days on Iwo Jima, six networks of Code Talkers transmitted more than eight hundred messages without error. On the morning of February 23, 1945, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted on a mountaintop. The word went out in Navajo code. Cryptographers translated the Navajo words for “mouse turkey sheep uncle ram ice bear ant cat horse intestines,” then told their fellow Marines in English that the American flag flew over Mt. Suribachi. A signal officer recalled, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

When the war ended, the Navajos headed home to their reservation. But the code itself remained top secret. Asked about the war, Code Talkers simply said, “I was a radioman.” Finally, in 1968, the code was declassified, and the secret was out.

In 1992, Keith Little was invited to the Pentagon, where he translated a prayer for peace phoned in by a Code Talker in Arizona. Then, Little and other Navajo vets helped dedicate a permanent exhibit on the Code Talkers.

“Most of us are common men,” Little once said. But in school, all young Navajos learning native studies read about the Code Talkers. The students all agree that without them, “We could have lost the war.”

In code, the Talkers spoke of snipers and fortifications, but their real message needed no interpreter. These heroes spoke of overcoming stereotypes and past conflicts for a higher cause, about blending tradition into the modern world. They spoke Navajo.

Bruce Watson

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