When US military codes kept being broken by the Germans in WWI a Native American tribe came to the rescue. They just spoke their own language – which baffled the enemy.
In the autumn of 1918, US troops were involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. It was one of the largest frontline commitments of American soldiers in WW1, but communications in the field were compromised.
The Germans had successfully tapped telephone lines, were deciphering codes and repeatedly capturing runners sent out to deliver messages directly.
The solution was stumbled upon by chance, an overheard conversation between two Choctaw soldiers in the 142nd Infantry Regiment. The pair were chatting in camp when a captain walked by and asked what language they were speaking.
Realizing the potential for communication, he then asked if there were other speakers among the troops. The men knew of Choctaw soldiers at company headquarters.
Using a field telephone the captain got the men to deliver a message in their native tongue which their colleagues quickly translated back into English. The Choctaw Telephone Squad was born and so was code talking. (BBC)
Every WWII combatant appreciated the need for an unbreakable code that would help them communicate while protecting their operational plans. The US Marines knew where to find one: the Navajo Nation. (US National Intelligence)
Philip Johnston was the initiator of the Marine Corps’ program to enlist and train the Navajos as messengers. Although Johnston was not a Navajo, he grew up on a Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary and became familiar with the people and their language.
Johnston was also a World War I veteran and knew about the military’s desire to send and receive messages in an unbreakable code. (National Archives)
Johnston assembled four Navajos and on February 28, 1942, they assisted Johnston in demonstrating his idea. Prior to the demonstration, General Vogel had installed a telephone connection between two offices and wrote out six messages that were typical of those sent during combat.
One of those messages read “Enemy expected to make tank and dive bomber attack at dawn.” The Navajo managed to transmit the message almost verbatim: “Enemy tank dive bomber expected to attack this morning.” (National Archives)
Marine Corps leadership selected 29 Navajo men, the Navajo Code Talkers, who created a code based on the complex, unwritten Navajo language. (US National Intelligence)
The code primarily used word association by assigning a Navajo word to key phrases and military tactics. This system enabled the Code Talkers to translate three lines of English in 20 seconds, not 30 minutes as was common with existing code-breaking machines.
This code consisted of words, most of which were Navajo terms that had been imbued with new, distinctly military meanings in order to compensate for the lack of military terminology in the Navajo vocabulary.
The tribal languages didn’t have their own words for modern concepts such as “tanks”, “machine guns”, “battleships”, “radar”, and so on. It was at Camp Elliott that the initial recruits, along with communications personnel, designed the first Navajo code.
Instead of using the English terms, which would have rendered the “code” almost useless, the code-talkers invented their own terms for such things, for example using the Navaho words for “iron fish” for a submarine, “hummingbird” for a fighter plane, “eggs” for bombs, and so on. Apparently the Choctaw code-talkers had come up with a similar scheme during the WWI.
At first, the list of Navaho codewords had 274 entries, though this was later expanded to 508. For terms with no Navaho equivalent that weren’t covered in the list, a “phonetic alphabet” was devised, using the Navaho equivalents of English words whose first letters spelled out the phrase: “Ant” for “A”, “Bear” for “B”, “Cat” for “C”, and so on.
For example, “fighter plane” was called “da-ha-tih-hi,” which means “humming bird” in Navajo, and “dive bomber” was called “gini,” which means “chicken hawk.”
In addition, the code talkers also designed a system that signified the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. For example, the letter A was “wol-la-chee,” which means “ant” in Navajo, and the letter E was “dzeh,” which means “elk.” Words that were not included in the 211 terms were spelled out using the alphabet. (National Archives) Some training occurred in Hawai‘i.
The first Navaho “code-talkers” went ashore with the Marines at Guadalcanal in August 1942.
The Navajo Code Talkers participated in all assaults the U.S. Marines led in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima.
During the nearly month-long battle for Iwo Jima (February 19 – March 26, 1945), for example, six Navajo Code Talker Marines successfully transmitted more than 800 messages without error. Marine leadership noted after the battle that the Code Talkers were critical to the victory at Iwo Jima. (US National Intelligence)
No code-talker transmission was ever cracked, and in fact, during the evaluations Marine cryptologists said they couldn’t even transcribe the language, much less figure out what was being said.
It is estimated that between 375 to 420 Navajos served as code talkers. The Navajo code talker program was highly classified throughout the war and remained so until 1968.
Returning home on buses without parades or fanfare and sworn to secrecy about the existence of the code, the Navajo code talkers are only recently making their way into popular culture and mainstream American history.
The “Honoring the Code Talkers Act,” introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico in April 2000, and signed into law December 21, 2000, called for the recognition of the Navajo code talkers.
During a ceremony at the US Capitol on July 26, 2001, the first 29 soldiers received the Congressional Gold Medal. The Congressional Silver Medal was presented to the remaining Navajos who later qualified to be code talkers. (National Archives)