I like to think that the willingness of the American military to employ unusual tactics and unexpected strategies on occasion is one of our nation’s strengths. I’ve always been fascinated by the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II, partly because it was such a brilliant concept and also because they were so willing to go to war on behalf of the US with their special skill. Earlier this month I saw that one of the few remaining code talkers had died, so I decided to write about this chapter of the War for my Veterans’ Day post, to honor the code talkers, as well as all the men and women who have fought and sacrificed for our Nation’s freedom.
The basic story is pretty well known now, although a closely held secret for many years after World War II ended. Phillip Johnston, a WWI veteran, son of missionaries who lived on the Navajo lands and who was one of only 30 non-Navajo speakers of the language in the world at the time, suggested to the U.S. Marine Corps that a team of Navajo speakers could code, transmit and decode a message in their language faster than the code machines. Sure enough, the code talkers accomplished the task in 20 seconds while the machines took 30 minutes. That’s a significant time savings in the heat of battle!
Starting with 29 recruits who developed the code, the group eventually grew to several hundred (420 men, their website says), and played a hugely pivotal role in many battles in the South Pacific, including Iwo Jima. The code used Navajo words for the letters of the alphabet, as well as some specific terms such as the word “turtle” to mean a tank.
A few interesting facts I hadn’t known before I researched this story – the code talker idea actually originated in WWI, when a U. S. Army captain overheard several men in his unit conversing in Choctaw and realized he could use them to send and receive messages the enemy couldn’t understand. Knowing this history, prior to WWII, the Nazis sent anthropologists to learn Native American languages but the task proved to be too challenging. (Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes – this definitely reminded me of Indiana Jones.) Still, just in case, the Allies primarily deployed code talkers in the Pacific Theater, although there was a unit of Comanche code talkers at Normandy, who continued fighting in the European Theater after storming the beaches. Meskwaki code talkers operated in North Africa.
The Japanese did capture a Navajo soldier in the Pacific who was not a code talker and tried to force him to translate the coded messages; however, the code had been devised such that even a native speaker of the language would see it as gibberish unless they knew the key.
Here’s the photo gallery on the official website for the Navajo Code Talkers: http://www.navajocodetalkers.org/photos/
Someone I tweet with mentioned this past weekend that at a USMC birthday luncheon he heard a 91 year old Code Talker sing the Marine Corps hymn in Navajo – very VERY cool. Once a Marine, always a Marine…
Taking a moment to remember and honor not only the veterans in my own family, but all veterans and their families….thank you seems like a totally inadequate thing to say but it definitely comes from the heart.