Navajo Code Talkers -
America's Biggest WWII
By Jack Hitt

During World War II, on the dramatic day when Marines raised the American flag to signal a key and decisive victory at Iwo Jima, the first word of this momentous news crackled over the radio in odd guttural noises and complex intonations. Throughout the war, the Japanese were repeatedly baffled and infuriated by these seemingly inhuman sounds. They conformed to no linguistic system known to the Japanese.
The curious sounds were the military,s one form of conveying tactics and strategy that the master cryptographers in Tokyo were unable to decipher. This perfect code was the language of the Navajo tribe. Its application in World War II as a clandestine system of communication was one of the twentieth century,s best-kept secrets.
After a string of cryptographic failures, the military in 1942 was desperate for a way to open clear lines of communication among troops that would not be easily intercepted by the enemy. In the 1940s there was no such thing as a "secure line. All talk had to go out onto the public airwaves. Standard codes were an option, but the cryptographers in Japan could quickly crack them. And there was another problem: The Japanese were proficient at intercepting short-distance communications, on walkie-talkies for example, and then having well-trained English-speaking soldiers either sabotage the message or send out false commands to set up an ambush. That was the situation in 1942 when the Pentagon authorized one of the boldest gambits of the war.
The solution was conceived by the son of missionaries to the Navajos, a former Marine named Philip Johnston. His idea: station a native Navajo speaker at every radio. Since Navajo had never been written down or translated into any other language, it was an entirely self-contained human communication system restricted to Navajos alone; it was virtually indecipherable without Navajo help. <
Without some key or way into a language, translation is virtually impossible. Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the military dispatched twenty-nine Navajos to Camp Elliott and Camp Pendleton in California to begin a test program. These first recruits had to develop a Navajo alphabet since none existed. And because Navajo lacked technical terms of military artillery, the men coined a number of neologisms specific to their task and their war.
According to Chester Nez, one of the original code talkers: "Everything we used in the code was what we lived with on the reservation every day, like the ants, the birds, bears. Thus, the term for a tank was "turtle, a tank destroyer was "tortoise killer. A battleship was "whale. A hand grenade was "potato, and plain old bombs were "eggs. A fighter plane was "hummingbird, and a torpedo plane "swallow. A sniper was "pick ,em off. Pyrotechnic was "fancy fire.
It didn,t take long for the original twenty-nine recruits to expand to an elite corps of Marines, numbering at its height 425 Navajo Code Talkers, all from the American Southwest. Each Talker was so valuable, he traveled everywhere with a personal bodyguard. In the event of capture, the Talkers had solemnly agreed to commit suicide rather than allow America,s most valuable war code fall into the hands of the enemy. If a captured Navajo did not follow that grim instruction, the bodyguard,s instructions were understood: shoot and kill the Code Talker.
The language of the Code Talkers, their mission, and every detail of their messaging apparatus was a secret they were all ordered to keep, even from their own families. They did. It wasn,t until 1968, when the military felt convinced that the Code Talkers would not be needed for any future wars, that America learned of the incredible contribution a handful of Native Americans made to winning history,s biggest war.
The Navajo Code Talkers, sending and receiving as many as 800 errorless messages at fast speed during "the fog of battle, are widely credited with giving U.S. troops the decisive edge at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. _____
Jack Hitt is a former editor at Harper,s and a journalist who writes frequently for the New York Times Magazine, GQ and Lingua Franca. This essay is reprinted with permission from "American Greats, edited by Robert A. Wilson and Stanley Marcus, published by <http://WWW.PUBLICAFFAIRSBOOKS.COMPublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. c. 1999 Robert A. Wilson, all rights reserved.


This Site Served by TheHostPros