Navajo Code Talkers Day
Celebrating Native American Service Members
August 11, 2014 by Jake Butler
For many years, Native American code talkers went unrecognized for the part they played in helping America prevail in both World War I and World War II. As an operational tactic, code talking was not fully declassified until 1968. Then on August 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed off on a Certificate of Recognition, creating Navajo Code Talkers Day to try and shed light on their triumphs.
From Normandy to the Battle of Iwo Jima, these complex communication systems were crucial to the success of our troops. Today we celebrate the legacy of Native American code talkers and share some background information about how the system came to be.
A Brief Explanation
Code talkers were responsible for coding and decoding vital radio and telephone communications for many military units scattered all over the world. Native American languages in general were ideal for coding messages because many of them had no written records at the time – they existed only in spoken word, passed down from generation to generation. That, along with their complex nature, meant that even if communications were intercepted, enemies would not be able to decipher the hidden messages.
The very first system used Cherokee and Choctaw languages during WWI. By WWII, the Army was also using Lakota, Meskwaki, Comanche, and Basque languages, but the work done by Navajo members of the Marine Corps is perhaps the most significant.
The idea to use the Navajo language was first proposed by an engineer from Los Angeles named Philip Johnston, a WWI veteran who was raised on a Navajo reservation. It was an unwritten language at the time and he thought the structural and grammatical complexity would fit the military's requirements. Being that so few non-Navajo knew the language, it was truly indecipherable to anyone without extensive exposure.
Johnston met with Major General Clayton B. Vogel and the staff of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, in 1942 to pitch the idea, which was well-received. They started trials shortly thereafter. They realized that Navajos could decipher and decode a three-line message within about 20 seconds – a huge improvement on previous forms of encryption that would save tons of time, effort, and resources on transmitting information.
The first 29 Navajo recruits went to boot camp in 1942 and began operating out of Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. Together they pioneered the Navajo code talking system that would be used for decades. The last of the original 29 code talkers, Chester Nez, recently passed away on June 4, 2014.
Impact and Recognition
At the Battle of Iwo Jima alone, there were six code talkers who worked tirelessly to send and receive over 800 messages, the speed and accuracy of which played a key role in America's success. According to a WWII fact sheet on Navy.Mil, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division, said after the battle, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” At the time, the Japanese were renowned at breaking enemy codes, but they were unable to decipher Navajo, which is a testament to the system and the skill of the individuals who devised and implemented it.
Native American code talkers performed their duties with honor through the Korean War and into Vietnam until the operation was shut down and later declassified. On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton and Congress awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to each of the 29 original WWII Navajo code talkers. They were presented personally by President George W. Bush in July, 2001 to four of the five surviving 29, and the family members of the other 24. Approximately 300 other Navajo code talkers were similarly awarded Silver Medals.
To the Native Americans who served and helped the U.S. prevail in multiple wars, we say thank you and happy Navajo Code Talkers Day!