First 29 Navajo U.S. Marine Corps code-talker recruits being sworn in at Fort Wingate, NM, in 1942. (Photo courtesy of National Archives 295175)

Navajo - The Unbreakable Code

Bowfin Museum

The idea to use native code talkers came from the son of a missionary to the Navajos, Philip Johnston. Raised on a Navajo reservation, he was one of a few outside of the tribe who spoke the language fluently.

Although weary, the U.S. Marine Corps approved a pilot project with 30 Navajos and allowed Johnston to enlist and participate in the program. The first 29 recruited Navajos (one dropped out) arrived at Camp Elliott near San Diego in May 1942. One of the first tasks for these recruits was to develop a Navajo code.

After training, they moved to Fleet Marine Training Center at Camp Elliott where the first Navajo code was created. The code was 211 words- Navajo terms that were given new military meanings. There was also a system that signified the twenty-six letters of English alphabet. The program would go on to be so successful that an additional two hundred Navajos were recruited. As the program grew, so did the code. The original 211 vocabulary would eventually expand to 411. 

By 1943, an additional 303 Navajos were recruited at 50 men a month for six months. The primary strength of the code talkers was the amount of secrecy and versatility with which they could be used. Capt. Ralph J. Sturkey called the code “the simplest, fastest, and most reliable means.” It is estimated that between 375 and 420 Navajos served as code talkers.

Official Marine Corps records contain very few battle reports related to the code talkers, due in part to keep their code secret. The code talkers served in all six Marine divisions earning praise for their work in the Solomons and the Marianas and on Peleliu. Operations in Iwo Jima were completely directed by Navajo Code. Fifth Marine Division Signal Officer Major Howard Conner said that “During the two days that followed the initial landings I had six Navajo radio nets working around the clock…They sent and received over 800 messages without an error. Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima.”

After the war, the Navajo code talkers went unrecognized. Unlike other veterans, they returned home on buses without parades and were sworn to secrecy in case the Navajo code was ever to be needed again. In 1992, an exhibit was created at the Pentagon in order to recognize the contributions of code talkers. Thirty-five code talkers attended the dedication of the exhibit which includes photographs, equipment, and the original code. 

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