Navajo Code Speakers

In the early 1940s, an experiment in military intelligence began that has since found a spot in American folk legend.  American military officials were scrambling to create codes to use because the Japanese intelligence corps was breaking all the codes they had.  An officer named Philip Johnston brought up the plan for using the Navajo language as the baseline for the code because of the difficulty and obscurity of the speech patterns.  Johnston had grown up in Navajo communities as the son of a Protestant Pastor and spoke the language fluently, so in 1942 he proposed his idea to the upper brass of the Marine corps.

There was a general distrust of using native languages for codes because during World War I, the Americans used the Choctaw language as a code.  German spies had been sent to the United States during the 20s and 30s posing as anthropologists with the intent of recording and deciphering the native languages of the United States.  For unknown reasons, the Navajo language was not recorded and their language became one of the most effective and difficult to break codes of the Second World War.  Some 29 young Navajo men trained to decipher and write their own version of a code using the Navajo language, being sent out in units of two, one to listen and one to code and decode new messages.

The baseline of the code was to spell out words using the first letter of the English translation of a Navajo word.  Navy became: Needle – Ant – Victor – Yucca, which was “tsah” – “wol-la-chee” – “ah-keh-di- glini” – “tsah-ah-dzoh”.  The complexity of the code came from the fact that it required fluency in two languages, one of which exists to a large degree only in Arizona.  Navajo code speakers would agree upon several words to use for different letters and different objects (submarines became “besh- lo” which meant Iron Fish) and would memorize the words.  The code language was worlds faster than machine decoding and was extremely effective at giving short bursts of information in the heat of battle.  Each of the Marine corps units had a detachment of Navajo soldiers who were their code speakers.  Early in their stint, the Navajo speakers were seen with disdain by other Marines because they spoke a foreign language that non-Navajo could never understand, but after several successful excursions, the Navajo windtalkers were seen as an essential part of the Marine corps.

As a testament to their success, many officers at Iwo Jima have made the statement that they would never have succeeded if it were not for the Navajo code speakers and the Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue explained after the war that they had broken the codes of the American Navy and the Air Force, but they never succeeded in cracking the Marine codes.

As a final word about the Code speakers, In June of 2014, Chester Nez, the last original Navajo code speaker, died at the age of 93.  There are however numerous interviews and conversations recorded with the speakers, so their story lives on in archives and books.



Learn how to speak Navajo:


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