Navajo Code Talkers: Quiet, Tough, Resilient



This Memorial Day we honor those who gave their lives serving in the US military. Perhaps no group deserves more honor than the Navajo Code Talkers. And no one could have predicted the language that they were forbidden to speak as children, would tip the scales for US victories in WW II.


Who were these Navajo young men, and how did they become involved in what was a top-secret project? It all goes back to a proud, fiercely loyal group of people—the Navajo Nation-- who suffered ill treatment as children.


Step back in time to the era when these Native Americans grew up--the first decades of the 1900s. Well-meaning people in authority began forcefully rounding up Navajo children as young as five, putting them in the back of a truck, and driving them to boarding schools. The goal? To purge them of their native language and culture. To “Americanize” them.


It was a gut-wrenching existence. Those running the school punished the confused children if they spoke Navajo, the only language they knew. They were beaten if they tried. The frightened children soon learned to comply with the wishes of their overseers and were “Americanized” according to the wishes of those in charge.


Years later, God turned their adversity into a positive outcome that would benefit the very ones who caused their grief.


Fast forward to 1941 and ‘42. America was at war with Japan. The island of Iwo Jima, 750 miles away from Japan, contained three airfields which could be used to launch attacks on US enemies. Taking possession of this island was of paramount importance.


The problem was, Americans at that time had no code our enemies couldn’t crack. Soldiers were dying by the scores.


Marines decided to try Navajo as a code. A language with no written alphabet, it was extremely difficult to learn unless a person spoke it as his first language. Adding to the challenge, the Navajo had no words for military terms.


The US Marine Corp recruited 29 young men from the Navajo nation, already in training, as the first code-talkers group. They spent weeks locked in a secret room, with instructions to invent a code.


Impossible circumstances were no deterrent to these men accustomed to hardship. Relying on their own wit, they invented words for military terms such as whale for battleship, shark for destroyer, and chicken hawk for dive bomber.


They developed a system to translate three lines of their memorized code into English in 20 seconds.


The results amazed the Marine commanders. The former military code took 30 minutes to translate the same three lines.


The code proved unbreakable. These brave Navajo men took part in every major Marine operation in the Pacific. During the battle for Iwo Jima, lasting five weeks, six Navajo code talkers successfully transmitted more than 800 messages without error.


While others received R and R, they remained in their positions, always in danger.


For a very long time after WW II ended, these Marines had to remain silent about their part in winning the war. Their families didn’t know they lived among heroes.

Quiet, tough, resilient: these are qualities I admire about the Navajo people. We owe them a deep debt of gratitude.

Navajo Code Talker survivors in 2013. Although others have written books about these amazing men, the last one I read, Code Talker by Chester Nez, is a memoir of one of the original 29. I think you would enjoy it.



What about you? Any thoughts about this unique group of people? Join the conversation below.