As celebrations get underway for November's Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month, it's important to remember how their culture led to success for America's Armed Forces during battle.
Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines Corps conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945 and served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language, a code that the Japanese never broke.
The idea to use Navajo for secure communications came from the son of a missionary to the Navajos, Philip Johnston.
Johnston was raised on the Navajo reservation and was one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. As a World War I veteran, he knew the military was in search of a code that would withstand all attempts to decipher it. He also knew that Native American languages, notably Choctaw, had been used in World War I to encode messages.
Johnston believed Navajo answered the military's requirement for an undecipherable code because it is a complex, unwritten language.
It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training.
In early 1942, Johnston met with Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and his staff to convince them of the Navajo language's value as code.
Johnston staged tests under simulated combat conditions, demonstrating that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job.
Convinced, Vogel recommended to the Commandant of the Marine Corps that the Marines recruit 200 Navajos.
In May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Here is where this first group created the Navajo code.
They developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized during training.
Once a Navajo code talker completed training, he was sent to a Marine unit deployed in the Pacific theater with the primary job of talking and 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.
Praise for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war. At Iwo Jima, Maj. Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."
Connor had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received more than 800 messages, all without error.
The Japanese, who were skilled code breakers, remained baffled by the Navajo language. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lt. Gen. Seizo Arisue, said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps, they never cracked the code used by the Marines.
In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. As of 1945, about 540 Navajos served as Marines. From 375 to 420 of those trained as code talkers; the rest served in other capacities.
Navajo remained potentially valuable as code even after the war. For that reason, the code talkers, whose skill and courage saved both American lives and military engagements, only recently earned recognition from the Government and the public.