Part II: Navajo Code Talkers

At the beginning of World War II, only 28 non-Navajos spoke Diné, the language of the Navajos. One of them was Philip Johnston whose missionary parents raised him on the Navajo reservation which overlaps New Mexico and Arizona. Johnston had served in the U.S. Army during WWI and was working as a civil engineer in Los Angeles at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

After the U.S. suffered devastating losses in the Pacific, the need for a coded language to prevent the Japanese from learning of American troop movements became paramount. In an article in the newspaper, Johnston was alerted to the challenge. Johnston located a few Navajos living in the Los Angeles area and arranged for them to demonstrate to the U.S. Marine commanders the utility of using Navajo and English languages in transmitting military communications.

After impressing the officers at the U.S. Marine base in San Diego, they obtained permission to enlist 30 young Navajos from their reservation. Willing to fulfill their patriotic duty, many recruits were younger than 18, the legal age of enlistment. They fibbed about their ages, since the Navajo custom was not to record birth certificates.

               They gave us two weeks to think about it. I did my
                 own thinking; I didn’t inquire of my parents.

                                                                                   Cozy S. Brown, young Navajo soldier

The U.S. Marines recruited an initial 29 men intended to be code talkers, whose numbers grew to approximately 420 by the end of the war. Even so, 3,600 Navajos eventually served in the military forces during WWII—a sizable percentage of their population of 50,000.

Ironically, the young Navajos were assigned to make a code from the very language they were forbidden to speak in government-run BIA schools. The Navajo Code Talkers’ military success in preventing the Japanese from deciphering American military actions, helped to shorten the war in the Pacific. The code was never broken, nor no code talker ever captured. The Japanese military remained frustrated as they tortured captured Navajos who could not understand the code when the Japanese forced them to listen to it.

For many years after the war to protect the project’s secrecy, the code talkers were not publicly recognized for their bravery and unique contributions. Only within recent decades have the Navajo Code Talkers been honored, especially with long-deserved Congressional medals. In February 2000, the toy company Hasbro introduced a Navajo Code Talker GI Joe doll to honor the men. Their critical contributions to the preservation of this country had finally been recognized. ❇