How Navajo Code Talkers Work

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey.

Candace Gibson: We got an email from one of our favorite listeners names Shiro, and he is just full of so many wonderful ideas for the podcast. And one of the ideas he suggested to us was the Navajo code talkers. And I got excited about Shiro's idea -

Jane McGrath: As did I.

Candace Gibson: - as did Jane. And so we thought, that's it. We're going to do it. So you could very well be the next lucky person whose idea gets podcasted about, so email us at And now on with the Navajos!

Jane McGrath: That's right. And to give you some context, we have the idea that codes in war are very important. The Japanese in World War II were able to basically tap into communications between the Allied Forces, intercept these communications, and they were sometimes able to issue false commands, even, and organize ambushes on Allied troops. So obviously, the Allies had to come up with codes that were inevitably broken by the Japanese. The Japanese were so good at code breaking, that they would break every code that the Allies came up with.

Candace Gibson: And this was so frustrating. The Japanese had even sent some of their men to the United States to study the language. They knew English perfectly. They could imitate the accent. And the Germans, who the Navajo code talkers didn't have to interact with but were still a major force in World War II - they sent some of their men over to Native American reservations in the United States to pose as art dealers and anthropologists so they could pick up on Native American languages. The United States was known to have used Choctaw and as many as 18 different tribes' influences from their languages in World War I.

Jane McGrath: And that's one thing I hadn't heard about, was the use of the American Indian languages in World War I. And I believe it was Hitler who had these anthropologists go over - that he had the foresight to at least try to understand these languages, to break any codes that the Americans would come up with.

Candace Gibson: And so it was a monumental task, and because World War II was conducted over a span of islands that were thousands of miles apart in some instances, the United States had to have a way of sending messages that the Japanese would not interpret. And it was a lost cause until Philip Johnston, who was raised on a Navajo reservation with his missionary parents, went to a naval station in Los Angeles and said, "I have this idea. The Navajo language is virtually unknown to anymore than 40 non-Navajos. It's almost impossible to understand. It's completely oral. It's never been written down. I think this might work."

Jane McGrath: That's right. And it also was a great advantage because it was so fast to use as a code. Codes before that, it took hours to send and decode a message sent among Allied troops. And the machines at the very least would take 30 minutes. And compare this to about 20 seconds that it took Navajos to code and decode a message when Philip Johnston had them demonstrate it.

Candace Gibson: It was just wild, the solarity with which they worked. And not just the speed, but the accuracy, too! And Johnston was advocating for the Navajos language to be used because the Navajos had been educated in American schools. And let me give you guys a little bit of background on this. The Navajos were pretty isolated in the southwest United States. They had their home between what they called the four sacred mountains. And so their language was very much consolidated within this area. And language is essential to their culture. They believe that the universe and language were created in tandem - the first four words being light, earth, water, and air. And it's a very precise language, too. Different inflections and different tonalities convey entirely different meanings. So The Navajos were within this corner of the United States, within the four sacred mountains, and gradually they began to be pushed out - first by Spanish invaders, and then by the United States! And General Sherman of Civil War fame is very well known for discussing what he called the Navajo Problem and beginning the process of eradication. And he was even quoted as saying their attempts at civilization are ridiculous. So the Navajos were pushed out of their reservation and they were made to go live in New Mexico until 1868 when a leader named Barboncito negotiated for the Navajo to return to their land. And in exchange, their children would be raised in U.S. schools and completely give up their culture. And it got to a point where children who even spoke the Navajo language and were overheard were beaten, punished, or their mouths were washed out. So essentially, the Navajo culture had been somewhat annihilated and completely brushed aside. And then it rose back up into question again.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And thank goodness it wasn't eradicated completely, because it ended up saving lives in battle in World War II.

Candace Gibson: And some Navajos recount that when they heard the news of Pearl Harbor there were as many as 100 men who went to a naval station to report for duty. And they even brought their own weapons in some cases, because Navajo culture is very much rooted in the idea of protecting the homeland, even the homeland that had spurned them for so long.

Jane McGrath: Right. And not all Navajos were code talkers, but many of them were. It's estimated between 375-420 Navajos served as code talkers! And it's interesting to note how the code actually worked. Because the language itself was very complex! Only about 30 non-Navajos actually spoke the language in the world. But they added an extra twist to the code that made it even more difficult. Even if you translated all these Navajo words into English correctly, it would still sounds like a random chain of words. And that was because what you were supposed to do when you got the message was only take the first letter of the English translation and put those together to make an understandable message.

Candace Gibson: And what made it so unique was that there were plenty of military terms that the Navajos didn't have words for at all. So something like hummingbird would refer to a fighter plane. And a dive-bomber would be a chicken hawk. So there was this added layer of mystery. And even when they thought that the enemy might be getting too close to figuring out what the words stood for, they would take the letter A and come up with three different English words that could be derived from it.

Jane McGrath: That's right. So they mixed it up. And as you say, not all words had to be spelled out letter by letter. They had those code words that were still shrouded in a level of mystery.

Candace Gibson: So the high point of the Navajo code came after the demonstration that Johnston conducted for General Clayton B. Vogel. And that's when Jane mentioned he demonstrated that a message that could take as much as 30 minutes to transmit via a cryptograph or other machine took 20 seconds for the Navajos. And the 382nd Platoon Coding Unit was formed. And recruiters from the Marines when to different reservations to get Navajos! And they had an outpouring of response, and some of the men lied on their applications because they were too young to go. And at least one lied because he was too old to go. And they went to boot camp, just like any other recruit. And then they were taken to Camp Elliot to develop their code. And it was never ever written down, and it evolved from 211 to 411 words. And the Navajo were given a lot of creative freedom in developing the code on their own.

Jane McGrath: And to go back to how complex the code was, even when a Navajo soldier who was actually not trained in the code - this soldier was not trained, but he understood the Navajo language - when he was capture in Batone by the Axis troops, they ordered him to try to translate it. And he never understood what the message was because of the added complexity of the code.

Candace Gibson: That gave rise to the premise on which the Nicholas Cage movie Windtalkers is based. And that's the idea that for every Navajo code talker in the field, there was a secret bodyguard who followed him and was supposed to kill him if he were captured so that he couldn't share the code. And we don't know for sure if that actually a component of the Navajo code talker equation. The military's not confirming or denying it, but it's interesting to think about. It's an interesting twist to the story.

Jane McGrath: And one of the great quotes that I found about their significance to the war in general was from the Battle of Iwo Jima. There was a Major Howard Conner who was an officer there, and he had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the battle. And he said later on, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines never would've never taken Iwo Jima."

Candace Gibson: Iwo Jima was amazing. We're talking about an almost 36-day long battle with about 48 straight hours of coding and translating and decoding. About 800 messages were sent without a single mistake.

Jane McGrath: That's incredible.

Candace Gibson: It is incredible. And the irony is that when the Navajo code talkers - the first 29, one of the 30 that were originally recruited dropped out after training - two stayed behind, 27 went over to the battlefields. They weren't used at first because people weren't sure that they could trust them in the thick of battle. And they thought that troops might be too caught up in military maneuvers to need their codes, so it took awhile to build trust and for the Navajos to be used for their intended purpose. At first they were just used for running messages. They were just runners. And others were handed weapons and told to fight.

Jane McGrath: Little did they know how -

Candace Gibson: Little did they know. And the Marine Raiders were the group that really put them to the test. And they proved themselves, especially at Saipan. One group of Allies was being bombed by their own men and they didn't know. And they kept trying to radio to say, "Stop. Stop. This is us." And finally, they were able to say, "Have you got a Navajo code talker there?" And as soon as the Navajo code talker sent the message that these were friendly troops that they were firing on, the firing immediately ceased. So the power that they held was immeasurable. And what's sad is that after Iwo Jima was taken, and after bombs were dropped on Japan and the war was in essence over, the Navajo code talkers were discharged.

Jane McGrath: And they couldn't talk about what their contribution to the war - no matter how great it was. Because the Marines wanted to keep a hold on it to use in future battles or what have you. So it actually remained classified until at least 1968. Think of the contribution you made to the country that has betrayed your people in the past, and you've done so much great work, and you come home and can't talk about it.

Candace Gibson: And it made it difficult for the code talkers who returned to the reservation and those who went out to seek jobs, because they couldn't account for what they'd been doing with the past couple of years of their lives. They couldn't say what they'd been doing. They had to either fabricate stories or keep silent. And we know that today there are plenty of soldiers who are coming home and they have these dreams and awful memories and psychological reckonings that they're dealing with after all that they witnessed in war. And Iwo Jima, especially, we're talking a volcano where the Japanese were lucky enough to have dug trenches. But the Americans were fighting on top, covered in volcanic dust, and being slaughtered. All the Japanese had orders to kill at least 10 Americans. And the Navajos had to come home and have these memories and they couldn't talk about them, they couldn't share them. They had no way to get help for dealing with the after effects of war. So when the information was declassified and they were finally honored for their service, we see that these things are still coming up. The Navajo code talkers are still talking about the memories that they have.

Jane McGrath: And it's testament to how well it worked, that the Marines still wanted to use it. It's true that the Japanese never broke it. And it's a testament to how effective they were and what great soldiers they were.

Candace Gibson: So finally we see that they were paid homage back in 2001. Four of the five living original 29 were honored with Congressional gold medals. And others that went in succession after the first 29, they were given Congressional silver medals.

Jane McGrath: About time.

Candace Gibson: About time. Definitely! So if you want to read more about the Navajos and how code breakers work, be sure to check out our articles on

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