Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Words That Helped Win A War

They would call a battleship a "whale". They would call a fighter plane a "hummingbird". A bomber plane was a "buzzard" and a destroyer would be a "shark". These were the methods of the Navajo Code Talkers.

One of the biggest difficulties for any nation at war is to have safe secure communication. Battles have been lost because of compromised information.

Communications Security

navajo code talkersAt the onset of World War II, the United States made a concerted effort to further encode military communications. The use of Native American languages was given serious consideration. The first known use of Native American language in a battle situation was with Cherokees at the Second Battle of the Somme during World War I. The picture left is of a group of Choctow code talkers from World War I. In fact, the story is that Hitler, being well aware of the Allies use of Native American code talkers during World War I, sent his agents prior to World War II on an unsuccessful mission to North America to learn and master the Native American languages. The problem the U.S. encountered in working with native languages was that often a word that wasn't indigenous was simply given the other languages word. In other words, a computer would be called a "computer" and an aircraft carrier would be called an "aircraft carrier". Obviously this wouldn't work and it had to be overcome.

The Navajo Language

philip johnston of the navajo code talkers
This all changed with an idea from the Kansas born son of a Protestant minister who had spent much of his earlier life on the Navajo reservation. Philip Johnston, pictured left, happened to be reading about the Marine Corps effort to utilize Native American languages and he had an answer to their problem. He went to visit the Marines.
navajo nation flag

Having learned the Navajo language as a child on the reservation (Navajo Nation flag shown left), Johnston suggested that the Navajo language would be ideal for the military by substituting Navajo words for English letter and word equivalents. Using these substituted words and letters the Navajo's would be given a message in English, substitute the key words by agreed upon Navajo words, then transmit the message. The message would be received by Navajo's aware of the key words and letters and then translated back into English. This was the whole idea behind the Code Talkers effort.Below is a small sample of substituted words  used.

English               Navajo  Language                Navajo Term

Platoon                  Has-Clish-Nih                           Mud

Patrol Plane            Ga-Gih                                     Crow

Cruiser                   Lo-Tso-Yazzie                        Small Whale

After Johnston met with a somewhat skeptical military he did convince them to witness a demonstration in the presence of Marine Major General Clayton B. Vogel, pictured below . Johnston assembled a small group of Navajo volunteers. They met and agreed on certain substitution letters and words and were readied for their demonstration for the top brass. During the demonstration they were divided into two groups and separated. Using the substitution method one group then successfully transmitted an English message to the other group in Navajo. The General was very satisfied and the Navajo code talker program expanded from there. The Navajo Code Talkers gave Uncle Sam an entirely new weapon to help win the war.

The Program Begins

general clayton vogel of code talkers
Being thoroughly impressed, Major General Vogel recommended the Marines recruit 200 Navajo's for the program. Initially, 29 were recruited, went through boot camp and then created the code talkers dictionary of terms. When a Navajo Code Talker completed his code training he was assigned to a Marine unit deployed in the Pacific. The code talker's sole function was to transmit and receive military dispatches between the various units and their commands. Philip Johnston was a civilian when he first approached the Marine Corp. After the successful demonstration he asked for and was granted the rank of Staff Sergeant to work as an instructor with the Navajo Code Talkers.

Code Talkers in Battle

The first battle employing the Navajo code talkers was at Guadacanal in the Solomon Islands, one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles in the Pacific theater. The code talkers also served on Iwo Jima and in every offensive operation by the Marines in the Pacific.

code talker using radio
It's estimated that 540 Navajo's served in the Marines during World War II. Out of that number about 400 served as code talkers. The Japanese were unable to crack the Navajo code. After the war the Japanese military admitted that while they were able to crack the codes for the Army and Air Corp, they never had success with the Marines and their Navajo code.
It's impossible to put a number of how many lives might have been saved because of the Navajo's success. I think everyone in the military would conclude that many lives were saved and that the code talkers made a significant contribution in helping win the war.

The original 29 Navajo code talkers received Congressional medals from the government in the year 2000.
code talker medalA permanent exhibit of Navajo code talking has been established in the Pentagon.

Learn More About the Code Talkers

There are two interesting sites to visit in regards to the Navajo Code Talkers. One is a bronze monument located in Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation capitol. Window Rock is easy to reach located just 27 scenic driving miles northwest of Gallup, NM just over the Arizona state line. The Window Rock itself is a one of a kind site and you'll be able to get some great pictures.

Another is the Navajo Code Talkers Museum located in the Gallup Chamber of Commerce building, 106 W. Hwy 66 in Gallup. The Gallup area itself has plenty of historic sites including the El Rancho Hotel, home of the cast and crew of many a western motion picture. Their lobby area is filled with terrific western movie photographs.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in public domain)

Below are web sites with additional information.




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