Navajo Code Talkers: They Helped Us Win the War

August 14th is National Navajo Code Talkers Day. No one could have predicted that the language these Native Americans were forbidden to speak as children, would tip the scales for US victories in WW II.

Who were these 29 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 during the first few 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. Children were punished if they spoke their native language and were beaten for failure to cooperate. Confused and frightened, the children soon learned to comply with the wishes of their overseers and were “Americanized.” Years later, God turned their adversity into a positive outcome.

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 our 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, Navajo language had no words for military terms.

The US Marine Corp recruited 29 young men already in training from the Navajo Nation, as the first code-talkers group. They spent weeks in secret, isolated in a 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. Their former military code took 30 minutes to translate the same three lines.

In the beginning, while the Navajo Marines still were transmitting secretly, US radio operators onboard ship heard them sending messages to one another from the battlefield. Unaware of the new code, ship radio operators thought their airwaves were being invaded by Japanese and shut down their headsets.

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 Talkers 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.