Sidelights on the Code Talkers


Not long ago, I heard a radio announcement that another of the now-famous Navajo Code Talkers of World War II had died. Flags were being lowered to half-mast throughout the Navajo Nation.

So secret were the existence and mission of the Code Talkers that 24 years passed after the war’s end before the history of this elite Marine Corps unit was declassified and made known to the public.

Since then, a half-dozen or more books on the subject have been published and a major motion picture, “Windtalkers,” was released in 2002.

After America was thrown into a major Pacific conflict with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in late 1941, the Marines recruited 29 young Navajos off the reservation who spoke both English and their native language.

The aim was to train them as communication specialists who could send and receive messages in Navajo that would baffle the Japanese.

Some skeptics in the military, however, believed that the enemy had the capacity, once it identified the language used, to find translators and see the system compromised.

This is where “the code” entered the picture. Navajo is an extremely complex language, spoken almost exclusively by Navajos. But it contains no equivalents for modern military terms.

Therefore, the small “First 29 Class,” as it came to be called, helped eventually devise a vocabulary of 450 common Navajo words that took the place of nouns and verbs in English.

For instance, if the Code Talkers needed to refer to a mine sweeper, they used the Navajo word for beaver, “cha.” Or for the month of January, “yas-nil-tes,” meaning “crusted snow,” was pressed into service.

All the words, with new meanings, of course, had to be faithfully drilled into the heads of the Navajo enlistees, who turned out to be quick and eager learners.

The newly developed code with the Navajo language at its base defied attempts by Japanese linguists to break it. In addition, with Navajo Code Talkers at either end able to instantly translate messages into English, vital commands could be issued in the heat of battle without delay.

Martin Link, a Gallup resident and former director of the Navajo Tribal Museum, has said that the idea of using Indians and their languages for military communication purposes actually dates back to World War I.

Members of Oklahoma tribes, mainly Comanches but also some Kiowas, Pawnees and Choctaws, exchanged intelligence reports in the European theater that the Germans never managed to decipher. Link suggests that they may have failed to get the attention later granted to the Navajos because the Comanches and others were not organized in a special unit. Rather, they were scattered as riflemen or artillery gunners, and only incidentally relayed messages in their language.

As battles raged from island to island eastward across the Pacific, the Navajo Code Talkers were usually in the thick of the fighting, some paying the supreme price. No one doubts today that the unusual service they rendered saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American lives.

With the war over, Navajo soldiers were offloaded from ships on the West Coast and discharged. But those who were Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy concerning their activities. Even their families could not be told what they had accomplished.

The explanation given was that war with the Soviet Union loomed down the road and the Code Talkers’ services might be needed once more.

So, one and all they went home, partook of a traditional healing ceremony and picked up the splintered pieces of their lives.

Not until 1969 did the government lift the secrecy requirement. In that year, 16 Code Talkers were flown to Chicago to receive medals and participate in a parade honoring them.

Two years later, the Navajo Code Talkers Association was organized with its own logo and flag to be displayed in Veterans Day parades.

Then in 1982, President Reagan proclaimed Aug. 14 as National Navajo Code Talker Day. Taking note of that, a Tokyo newspaper ran a story on the Code Talkers with the headline: “Japanese Military Forces Defeated by Indians.” Now that’s recognition!