Classified code mission delayed recognition for Navajo Marines

By Mr Eric Kowal (RDECOM)December 15, 2011

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PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. - November was a month of celebration for Native Americans that recognizes their heritage, rich ancestry and traditions.

Tina L. Hawkins, a specialist in Picatinny's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, recently set aside on hour so that employees could have a better understanding of how one group of Native Americans contributed to America's war effort in World War II.

The contributions of the Navajo Code Talkers is one of the main reasons the United States prevailed in World War II, yet they were a group of no more than 400.

Approximately 80 years before World War II, in what is called the "Long Walk of the Navajo, the United States government forced the Navajo people at gunpoint from their traditional homelands in what is now Arizona and New Mexico. The journey lasted 18 days, covered more than 300 miles and caused many deaths.

Over time the Navajo population began to dwindle. Children were taken from their families and sent to schools where they would be purged of their native tongue and traditions.

The Navajo Nation is now a semi-autonomous Native American-governed territory covering 27,425 square miles in northeastern Arizona, the southeastern portion of Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. It is the largest land area assigned primarily to a Native American jurisdiction within the United States.

In 1941, when Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government turned to the Navajo people for help.

Philip Johnston, a veteran of World War I, proposed the use of a "coded" language to the U.S. Marine Corps. Johnston was raised on a Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary to the Navajo people.

Navajo was spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest, and its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, made it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure to it and training. According to one estimate, at the outbreak of World War II fewer than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language.

Early in 1942, Johnston met with Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and his staff.

Johnston staged tests under simulated combat conditions that showed that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds, compared to the 30 minutes required by machines at that time.

The idea of using Navajos as code talkers was accepted. Vogel recommended that the Marines recruit 200 Navajos. The first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in May 1942.

Some of the Navajo teens that were approached by Marine Corps recruiters were still at an age where parental consent for military service was needed. Because many of the parents could not read or write English, they dipped their thumbs in ink and stamped approval for their children to serve.

For many of the Navajo, Marine Corps boot camp was the first time they had spent time away from their families and even their reservation. After graduation from boot camp, they were segregated at an undisclosed location at Camp Pendleton.

Their mission was top secret and no other Marines were to interact with them. They were not allowed to tell anyone what they were being trained to do.


They were trained to develop and use a coded language that only they would understand to help achieve victory over the Japanese. The code was so secret that three different codes were created and the Navajo had to memorize all three.

The Navajo code was formally developed and modeled on the phonetic alphabet used by the military. After it was determined that phonetically spelling out all military terms letter by letter into words while in combat would take too long, some terms of modern warfare were given uniquely formal descriptive nomenclatures in Navajo.

For example, the Navajo people did not have a word for "bomb" so they modeled the word off the word "egg" and created "A-ye-shi."

Also, the code talkers could not carry any paperwork with them. The entire code had to be committed to memory. They would endure the same stresses as all other Marines. They were not behind a desk answering the phone and relaying messages back to a commander somewhere.

The Navajo dug their own fox holes, carried their own weapons and defended their lives against the enemy. In fact, the Navajo Marines were involved in every assault in the Pacific that included the Soloman Islands, Tarawa, Saipan and even Iwo Jima.

At Iwo Jima there were more than 100 Navajo Code Talkers. Iwo Jima proved to be one of the most pivotal battles in the history of the United States and probably the most important engagement in the Pacific during World War II.

One out of every three Marines that landed on Iwo Jima became a casualty. By the end of the battle, only four Navajo Code Talkers were killed. It is estimated that nearly half a million Americans died during World War II.

Of that, only 10 were Navajo Code Talkers. This statistic shows how small a minority the Navajo were, yet how vital and how protected they were.

During the battle of Iwo Jima, more than 800 messages were translated.

As soon as the Navajo Marines translated a message and sent it out, they would immediately have to pack up their gear and find new coverage because the Japanese could detect where the translated messages originated and would attack the area in less than five minutes.

The value of the number of lives saved due to this Navajo coded communication is incalculable.

By helping fellow Americans take Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima, the troops were able to capture the airfield, which was later used to help launch the attack on Hiroshima.

After the war was over, the Navajo went back to their reservation without any recognition.

They never existed. Their mission never happened.

For those reasons, they never received any military benefits including healthcare.

It was not until 1968 that the operation was declassified and the Navajo Code Talkers could emerge from the shadows.

On Oct. 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared the day National Code Talker Day.

In 2001, President George W. Bush awarded Congressional gold and silver medals to the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. By that time, only five of the 29 were still alive and only four could attend.

For more information on Native American Heritage Month please contact the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity.

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