In 1942, US military officials visited the Navajo Nation and recruited 29 Navajo men to train as Code Talkers in the Marines. Code Talkers used their tribal language to send secret messages on the battlefield. By the end of the war, more than 400 Navajos were trained as Code Talkers, participating in nearly every major Marine operation in the Pacific Theater. Their code remained unbroken throughout the war, and their contributions helped the United States achieve victory in the Pacific.
During WWI, soldiers from the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes became the first known US Code Talkers. Seeing their success at passing messages in code, WWI veteran Philip Johnston, who grew up on the Navajo reservation as the son of missionaries, proposed Navajo Code Talkers at the beginning of WWII. Marine officials were hesitant, worried that using a tribal code may not work again. After seeing an impressive demonstration, military officials began recruiting Navajos into the Marines.
Navajos had to meet three requirements to be a Code Talker: first, they had to be fluent in both Navajo and English. Second, they needed to be between 17 and 30 years old, and finally, they had to pass basic training. The original 29 recruits left the Navajo nation and began to develop a coded alphabet. To accomplish this, they chose an English word for each letter of the alphabet, then translated that English word into Navajo. For example, the word for the letter “a” was ant, and the Navajo translation for ant was Wol-la-chee. The Code Talkers also developed code words for military words. Officials were pleased and surprised at how quickly and accurately coded messages could be sent and received. Instead of the standard 30 minutes needed using code-breaking machines, the Code Talkers could translate three lines of English in 20 seconds.
Their work was dangerous. Code Talkers often worked in pairs, with one person operating the radio and the other receiving and relaying the messages. Radio operators were already a target, so Code Talkers had to keep moving as they performed their work. During the first two days of the Battle of Iwo Jima, they transmitted 800 messages without a single mistake. At least 14 other Native nations also served as Code Talkers during WWII, but the Navajos were the most formally organized. One of the original 29 Code Talkers, Allen Dale June, joined the Marines when he was 17. The irony of being asked to defend the country was not lost on June or other Code Talkers. “Naturally we were concerned about the survival of the country in the Great War at the time. At the same time, we were defending our own country, the Navajo Nation,” he said.
The Code Talkers were so successful that military officials wanted to keep the program classified. After the war, Code Talkers remained quiet about their service for 23 years. Finally, in 1968, the project was declassified, and the Navajo Code Talkers received public recognition for the first time. That recognition extended on a national level when in 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared August 14 as Navajo Code Talkers Day. In 2001, the 29 original Code Talkers were honored with Congressional Gold Medals by President George W. Bush.
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