The Unbreakable Code
Navajo warriors are seeking support for a museum that would preserve their legacy and recognize their unique contribution to the nation.

Keith Little is President of the Navajo Code Talkers Association.
Keith Little is President of the Navajo Code Talkers Association.


Communicating. Sending and receiving messages. It's something we do every day. It's part of being human. It's also at the heart of military operations and essential to success in combat. Protecting these messages is equally important

Enter the use of codes. Encrypting, or using codes to hide or protect messages, has been around since the Egyptian pharaohs in 1900 B.C. One of the most effective codes ever used and the only military code never broken was developed by young Navajo warriors using their ancient tribal language.

Considered "hidden" because it had no alphabet or written form, the Navajo language was well-suited to meet the security requirements of military communications. At least, that was the belief of Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajo.

Johnston suggested the use of the Navajo language for military voice and wire communications to Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel, commanding general of the Amphibious Corps for the Pacific fleet.

With the help of four Navajos living in nearby Los Angeles and another on active duty in San Diego, Johnston set up a test that demonstrated the speed and accuracy of using the Navajo language for coded messages. In later tests under combat conditions, Navajo Code Talkers proved their ability to translate a classified message into Navajo, transmit, receive and decode the message back into English faster than the conventional cryptographic facilities and techniques.

Navajo Code Talker Bill Toledo, who saw action at Iwo Jima and Bougainville, recalled being asked to retrieve a classified message that had frustrated the radioman for two hours. Toledo called a fellow Code Talker at the source and "translated the message in five minutes."

The Marine Corps' Navajo Code Talker program began in September 1942 with the recruitment of 200 Navajos to be trained and assigned as Code Talkers to Marine units throughout the Pacific theater.

Like other Marines, Navajo recruits completed basic boot camp training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego before receiving their specialized training at Camp Elliott, Calif. They were also taught basic communications procedures and equipment at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The first 29 Navajo Code Talkers had the added responsibility of assigning words from their language to stand for certain military terms and equipment for which there was no Navajo equivalent. Some examples: "besh-lo" (iron fish) meant "submarine"; "dahhe-tih-hi" (hummingbird) meant "fighter plane"; and "chay-da-gahi" (tortoise) meant "tank".

Many terms and names simply had to be spelled out, and for that they devised a system whereby a Code Talker would translate a Navajo word into its English equivalent, and then use only the first letter of the English word to spell out the message. To add another layer of security and confound the enemy, several Navajo alternatives were used for each of the most commonly used letters in English. Thus, the Navajo words for "ant", "apple" and "axe" all represented the letter "a".

To compound the difficulty for the Japanese, who had a well-earned reputation for their code-breaking skills, the Code Talkers had to memorize the entire code with all its variables, as no printed documents about the code were sent into combat.

"We had no pads or pencils. We were learning the code with the computer we were born with," explained Code Talker Frank Willetto.

Initial skepticism about their value by field commanders quickly evaporated as time and again the Navajo Code Talkers assigned to their units proved instrumental in successfully executing their missions.

Navajo Code Talkers, who numbered more than 400 by war's end, took part in every marine assault from 1942 to 1945, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima.

At Iwo Jima, Maj. Howard Conner, signal officer for the 5th Marine Division, gave his unequivocal endorsement, reporting, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Six Navajo Code Talkers worked around the clock for the first two days of the battle, sending and receiving more than 800 messages-all without error.

Although their primary mission was to "talk," transmitting vital operational information from command elements to the field and back, the men in their units found the Navajos were also good Marines and could do their share of fighting and other Marine duties.

Concern that the darker-skinned Navajos might be mistaken for Japanese soldiers was borne out in more than a few instances; several Code Talkers were taken "prisoner" by their own forces, only to be released upon validated identification from their commander. Thereafter, some commanders assigned bodyguards to accompany the Navajos during the remainder of their assignment.

The continued value placed upon the effectiveness of the Navajo-based code by the military kept acknowledgement of and recognition for the Code Talkers as hidden as their language.

Finally, in a Pentagon ceremony held on Sept. 17, 1992, the Navajo Code Talkers were honored for their contributions during World War II. Thirty-five of the remaining Code Talkers were on hand for the unveiling and dedication of a special exhibit of photographs, equipment and the original code, which were put on permanent display. The exhibit is a regular stop on the Pentagon tour.

Now that their story can be told, a new effort to share their military history and cultural values of service with future generations is underway.

With an understandable sense of urgency, four of approximately 40 remaining Navajo Code Talkers came to Washington, D.C., in October to meet with administration and congressional representatives to obtain support for a Navajo Code Talkers Museum and Veterans Resource Center being planned near their reservation outside Gallup, N.M.

They also visited the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., not only as Marine Corps veterans, but to get ideas on how best to tell their own story in a museum setting. The Marine Corps museum has its own Code Talker exhibit.

Keith Little, president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, explained his motivation to serve: "I wanted to protect my people, my land and my country."

Once punished for speaking their native language, the Navajos have witnessed an evolution of perceptions and attitudes toward their unique culture, preserved by that same language. Their experience provides clear evidence of the individual, community and national enrichment possible when diversity is embraced from a sense of awareness, acceptance and appreciation.

It's all about communicating.

By Jim Benson

Want to Know More?
To learn more about the Navajo code talkers and their quest for a museum, visit their Web site at

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URL: /NCT_Unbreakable_Code_Article.cfm
Creator(s): Harrison Lapahie Jr.
Dated Created: 02/14/2010
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Updated: 02/14/2010
Curator(s): Harrison Lapahie Jr.
Resource(s): The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Vanguard Magazine, Winter 2009/1010, Page 23, The Unbreakable Code
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