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Unsung Heroes: The Navajo Code Talkers
December 7, 2011
An unsung hero is defined as, “a person who makes a substantive yet unrecognized
contribution or a person whose bravery is unknown or unacknowledged,” (Unsung Hero). There
have been many unsung heroes throughout history, especially during times of war. One such
example is the Navajo Code Talkers. In 1942, World War II was in full swing with thousands of
lives lost everyday. Back on the American home front in the state of Utah, Navajo Indians started
their training in communication with the hopes of being able to improve the information
exchange on the War frontline. Very few have heard of the Navajo code talkers, yet thousands of
American soldiers owe their lives to these brave men. Despite Utah’s early misdeeds against
their ancestors, members of the Navajo tribe answered the call during World War II and through
their language and dedication significantly contributed to the victorious outcome of the war.
Relations between the Navajo tribe and Americans were filled with missteps from the
very beginning. Americans migrated west into Navajo land during the mid 1800s and the two
cultures clashed resulting in many disputes, raids, and deaths. The U.S. army decided to deal
with the Navajos once and for all. In 1863 the order was given for U.S. troops to trample and
destroy the Navajo’s fields and crops, kill the Navajo’s wild game, burn the Navajo’s villages to
the ground, and kill any Navajos who put up a fight, (Aaseng). This left the Navajos without
food and homes for the winter arriving in a couple months, forcing many Navajos to surrender
and walk 350 miles southwest towards Fort Sumner. The walk was fatal and American soldiers
provided no mercy. “If someone stopped because he was tired, hungry, or thirsty, the soldiers
killed him. If a women stopped to have a baby, the soldiers killed her and anyone who tired to
help.” (McClain). When totaling up the deaths that resulted from the walk plus life in the fort,
2,000 Indians lost during the 4-year exile. The US government issued an order that allowed the
Navajos to return to their reservation, however, the hardships and miseries endured on The Long
Walk were passed down from generation to generation, never to be forgotten.
A generation or two later, Americans and Navajo’s relationship continued to suffer.
Americans sought to educate the children of the Navajo people, hoping that through
Americanizing the younger generation it would result in the Americanization of an entire people.
This happened through sending the children miles away to Indian Boarding Schools in order to
teach them English and Christianity. In an interview with Keith M. Little, a Navajo code talker
who served in the 4th Marine Division, he talked about his experience in the boarding schools:
“We were restricted from talking Navajo with each other at school. If you spoke
out in Navajo, even secretly, there were people watching you all the time and
tattling on you, you would get whipped or punished for it. That’s how the
Christian mission was. The mission was to get the savages civilized and fit them
in with American society.” (Selections)
Clearly, the American teachers attempted to beat the Navajo language out of the students. The
students were taught that English was the only option to succeed in life. Our country is very
lucky that many of these students found ways to protest and secretly learn English without losing
their native language and culture.
Even after the trials the Navajo tribe were forced to face by the US government, when
America needed help the most, members of the tribe were able and willing to forgive and serve.
In 1940, the Navajo council released a statement that read, “we resolve that the Navajo Indians
stand ready as they did in 1918, to aid and defend our government and constitution against all
subversive and armed conflict,” (Aaseng). Thousands of Navajo young men answered the call
and enlisted to join the war efforts. These men put the past behind them and served a country that
two generations earlier disrespected and killed many of their ancestors. In an interview, Keith M.
Little mentions that he is aware that his ancestors were abused, however he was just grateful that
they were able to return. He loved his home and his family and would do everything to protect it.
(Selections). Harold Y. Foster, a Navajo code talker who fought as a marine at Iwo Jima, tells of
his enlistment experience when he said, “I was seventeen and in high school at Fort Wingate in
1942. I wanted to protect my country,” (Kawano). This expression of loyalty to their country is a
testament to the type of people the Navajos are. Their ability to forgive and put their lives in
harms way to protect their country, changed the course of the war and saved thousands of lives.
Little did the Navajo soldiers know, but problems were arising in the war; problems only the
nation of Navajo soldiers could solve.
A key aspect of war is the ability to transmit information to the different areas where the
soldiers were stationed. The Americans struggled with this aspect of the war due to the German
and Japanese’s advance ability in breaking codes. This inability to transmit codes without it
being deciphered by the enemy hampered the American progression in the war, especially in the
War of the Pacific, where the Americans soldiers were more spread out and scattered (Marder).
The Japanese not only broke the codes but they also used the codes to send fake messages to US
troops stationed in the islands. American troops could not figure out how the Japanese learned to
speak English with perfect American accents. The answer came when they found dead Japanese
soldier wearing their American high school rings, and when they discovered many Japanese
soldiers attended American Universities, (Paul). Obviously, the combination of ineffective
transmission of messages to a broadly scatter troop pollution, combined with a fear of the
authenticity of the message that were received created a serious advantage for the Japanese army
in the beginning phases of the war. However, things were soon to change.
In 1942, Philip Johnson approached the US Marine Corps with a plan to use the Navajo
language as a code to transmit information over the radio without fear of it being decoded. Philip
Johnson grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and was one of very few Americans who
spoke the complex language. The US Marine corps was skeptical of the prospects of success
with this idea because they had tried a similar idea with a past war with a different tribe of
Indians; however, Johnson was very confident in his idea for two reasons. First Johnson knew
that the Navajo language is virtually impossible for an adult to master. The language was so
complex due to the fact that every syllable had to be pronounced exactly or else you would be
saying a different word then you meant, (Aaseng). The other reason this idea was believed to
succeed was because the Navajo tribe was the only Indian group in the US that was never
touched by the Germans. Throughout the twenty years before 1941, German immigrants flocked
to the US Native American tribes secretly studying their language and culture while using the
excuse of being Anthropologists and artists, (Marder). These two reasons combined with a very
successful demonstration, persuaded the Marines to allow Johnson to recruit 29 Navajos and
begin training them to be, what we now refer to them as, The Navajo Code Talkers.
These 29 soldiers never realized what they were signing up for when they enlisted into
the Marines with only the knowledge of having a “special assignment”. When beginning the
creation process of the code Johnson stated, “my plan is not to use translations of an Indian
language, but to build up a code of Indian words,” (Paul). This meant the code involved taking a
military word and then creating a code for that word in English and then translating that word
into Navajo. An example of this being, when the soldiers wanted to say the military word “Dive
Bomber” they said the Navajo word “Gini” which literally translated to “chicken hawk” in
American, (Bixler). The original plan was to take 211 of the most common military words and
create the code. They also created a system that allowed them to spell out words if they did not
have a code word for it. This method was created using common words, like animals, and taking
their first letter to represent the code, for example, ant (Wol-la-chee) for A and mouse (Na-as-
tso-si) for M, (Paul). The code became even more complex when they created multiple words
that could be used to represent the alphabet. This method was used to eliminate the possibly of
the German army seeing the frequency of certain words to break the code, (Purdum). If the code
was not already hard enough, to top it off, the Navajo soldiers had to memorize everything, none
of this was written down. They did not want to take the chance of the enemy getting hold of a
written copy of the code. These 29 soldiers spent countless hours creating and then memorizing
this complex code. As the war progressed, because the code continued to prove successful and
reliable in training camp, the Marine Corps finally gave the program the stamp of approval and
permission to recruit more Navajos in order to expand the project. When believed ready, the
code talkers were sent to change the course of the war in the pacific islands.
Upon first arriving to the battlefield, the Navajos proved little assistance. The
commanding generals did not trust the program, therefore they used the Navajos as regular
soldiers rather than the secret weapons they truly were. Chester Nez, one of the original 29
Navajo Code Talkers who developed the code, relates his experience when first arriving in the
pacific islands and one of the events that led to the commanding officers change of heart:
“At first there were quite a few generals and commanders who didn't think it was
going to work. So they set up two communications centers, one run by white
signalmen. They gave us both 10 messages to send and decipher. Theirs took
almost five minutes to cipher and decode, ours took one to two minutes,”
After experiences like these, which were common in the beginning usage of the Navajos, the
code talkers began gaining the recognition and usage in which they deserved while out in battle.
The Navajo code was by far the fastest and most accurate code the Americans used throughout
the war and the only one the Japanese could not decode. The code was created so beautifully that
not only the Japanese failed to break it, but English and Non-code-talking Navajos could not
make sense of it as well, (Ringle). The code also proved effective because it could be modified
and adapted to special needs while out in the field. As the war continued, advancements in
military weapons and methods resulted in the need for new words in the Navajo code. The code
talkers took this challenge and effectively expanded the code in order to meet the required needs
in the war, (Paul). This exemplifies the masterpiece of this invented code and the foresight the
original creators had to create a complex by adaptable code. From this we see benefits of the
code talker’s presence in the pacific islands. Interestingly the Navajo soldiers did more then just
man the communication posts; they also proved beneficial to the war efforts through their
dedication and determination while participating in regular combat.
The Navajo soldiers attended a boot camp before receiving training with the code. This
allowed the soldiers to participate in regular combat as well as participate as radio
communicators. The Navajo code talkers knew how important their job was in the war however;
this did not keep them from filling other roles that were needed in battle. One soldier recalls
being sent to an area to be in charge of a radio station however, when his commander assigned
him to fill another roll he was obedient and did as he was ordered, (Paul). Some of these roles
included machine gunners, infantrymen, and stretcher-bearers, all essential to the maintenance of
the frontline. Many times as the soldiers engaged in combat they would hear the words
“Arizona” or “New Mexico” transmitted over the radio which signaled the transmission of a
Navajo message. No matter what they were doing and no matter how far away they were, these
Navajo code talkers would drop what they were doing and make their way over to the
communication post to receive and decode the message. This took courage and dedication
because, for the most part, the code talkers were positioned on the frontlines with the rest of their
battalion. Many Navajo Code Talkers lost their lives on the front lines. They participated as
runners to carry messages from headquarters to the frontlines, many times while just carrying the
radio and no weapon, (Kawano). This was a highly dangerous job; however, they courageously
ran back and forth day and night showing bravery and dedication to the war effort. The Navajo
code talkers were a special type of soldier who, because of their culture and the way they were
raised, went above and beyond in their assigned labors. It is clear that they enhanced the war
effort through their hard work and determination; however, the real impact they left on the war
was through their unbreakable code.
By the end of the war, every American battalion in the pacific islands had Navajo code
talkers transferring messages. They had become such essential resources to the war efforts that
commanding officers assigned bodyguards to protect them everywhere they went. Unlike the
average soldier, they had a weapon that was irreplaceable, thus requiring extra protection and
caution on the battlefield, (Paul). More and more Code Talkers received protection as their code
continued to make a difference in battles such as Iwo Jima and military expeditions involving the
air force. Iwo Jima was the only battle in the Pacific islands that resulted in more American
casualties then Japanese casualties, however without the Navajo Code talkers the American
casualties would have been even more fatal. The entire operation was directed by Navajo code
and throughout the two days following the landing on the island, six Navajo code talkers worked
nonstop to receive and send messages. In that time, they sent and received over 800 messages
without a single mistake. Commenting on the overall battle, Major Howard Conner, the Fifth
Marine Division's Signal Officer said, “Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines
never would have taken Iwo Jima,” (Wilson). Another situation in which the usage of the Navajo
code saved lives was in the Naval Air Force communication post. Bombers were being sent to
attack islands in the pacific, however the Japanese were able to break the codes. This gave the
Japanese a superior advantage as they deciphered exactly where the US planes were going to hit
allowing them the foreknowledge to be ready to defend. Many bombers and other planes were
gunned down never to return to safety. Finally, the Air force brought in eleven code talkers to
man the communication post and prevent the Japanese from gaining any knowledge of their
planned attacks, (Paul). The Navajos ability to code the planned attacks saved hundreds of US
soldier lives and helped to turn the tide in favor of the US Military as it fought the war of the
Pacific against Japan.
Overall, the greatest example of the extent in which the Navajo Code influenced and
changed World War II is found in one man’s experience. Sgt. Joe Kieyoomia was a Navajo
Native American who fought in the army and was captured in 1942 resulting in him spending 43
horrific months in the hands of the Japanese. When the Japanese learned that he was Navajo,
they brought him words written in Navajo and told him to translate. He was able to tell them the
literal translation into English however; this was of little use to them because Kieyoomia did not
know the Navajo code. The Japanese tried to beat the code out of him. One such beating
involved him being stripped naked and forced to stand outside in 27-degree weather until he
gave up the code. Finally, after an hour he was allowed to come inside, the soles of his feet were
ripped off when he was shoved inside because they had frozen to the ground. He was beaten
daily and when telling about the experience he stated, “I wanted to die…many times, I thought I
was close, (Korte). From Kieyoomia’s experience, it is clear how effective the code was against
the Japanese. The Japanese no longer had the advantage and they were doing everything in their
power, including torturing US soldiers, to gain the advantage back. The Navajo code completely
changed the dynamics of the war. Looking back on his experience Kieyoomia said, “I salute the
Code Talkers…and even if I knew about their code, I wouldn't tell the Japanese," (Korte).
Thousands of American soldiers who served along side the Navajo Code Talkers share similar
feelings and owe their lives to these valiant and dedicated soldiers.
Quietly and silently, the unsung heroes altered the effectiveness of the U.S. Military
during World War II and earned the honor and respect of their fellow marines and leaders. Most
Marines and Army personnel never had a clue what the ‘coders’ were and what major part they
played in the war. Davey Baker, a fellow solider who worked along side the Code Talkers stated,
“If God alone may know, they saved thousands of American lives, yet their tale had been hidden
by the very role they played: Talk silent, speak swift, stay alive,” (McClain). Although it took the
U.S. government 40 years to recognize the Navajos for their contribution, those who served
along side them never forgot the sacrificing service that was rendered by the Navajo Code
Talkers. Grateful we are for the integrity of these fine soldiers, which allowed them to serve this
nation with Honor and Valor.
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