The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II
Filed under: History, Holidays, Language, Language Learning, Multiculturalism
Although it is a largely unknown story, August 14, 2012 is the day set aside to remember and give thanks to the Navajo Code Talkers of the second World War.
These young Navajo men changed the course of history by transmitting secret communications on the WWII battlefield, at a time when America’s best cryptographers were falling short. They came up with the most ingenious and successful code in military history.
At the beginning of WWII, Japanese intelligence was able to decipher every code that the US devised. With plenty of fluent English speakers among their ranks, the Japanese broke code at an alarming rate. They were also able to send false commands and sabotage messages. Due to this, increasingly difficult codes were produced which led to complaints that the codes were taking hours to encrypt. The military had to come up with a better way to communicate.
When a missionary’s son who grew up on a Navajo reservation named Phillip Johnson heard of the crisis, he remembered that the Navajo language had no alphabet and was impossible to decipher without early exposure. He led the first test group to try out this language for use as military code.
In 1942, 29 Navajo men of all ages were recruited for this mission. The code originated with 200 terms but grew to 600 by the end of the war. The Navajo men could communicate in 20 seconds what often had taken the coding machines 30 minutes. The code consisted of Najavo terms that were associated with the respective military terms they resembled. The Navajo word for turtle meant “tank,” and a dive-bomber was a “chicken hawk.”
Although their undecipherable code played a pivotal role in saving lives and helping to end WWII, the Navajo Code Talkers did not receive proper recognition when they returned home. Their secret was thought of as too precious to divulge. The code was declassified in 1968 but it still took many years to be officially recognized.
In 2001, almost 60 years after they created their remarkable code, the Navajo Code Talkers finally received their Congressional Medals of Honor.