American marines used radios to communicate which could be intercepted by the enemy so needed to be put through a code machine. But there was no time to use a code machine in the middle of a battle. The problem was solved by civil engineer called Philip Johnston who had lived on a Navajo reservation as a child and could speak Navajo. Philip Johnston proposed the idea of using Navajo Code Talkers who would make it possible to relay a message in minutes that would have taken a code machine operator hours to encipher and transmit.
Facts about Navajo Code Talkers
Philip Johnston (1892 - 1978) was the son of a missionary and was raised on the Navajo reservation in Leupp, Arizona.
Playing with Navajo children he learned how to speak their language. The Navajo language had no written alphabet and was known to only the people of the Navajo tribe and a few missionaries.
In 1901, when he was just 9 years old, he traveled to Washington D.C. with his father and local Navajo leaders to lobby for Indian rights and acted as a translator for President Theodore Roosevelt.
Philip Johnston left the reservation to earn a civil engineering degree at the University of Southern California and served in the U.S. Army's 319th Engineers during WW1.
During his time in the army it is possible that Philip Johnston encountered Code Talkers from the Choctaw and Comanche tribes. In 1918 US troops involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. Communications in the field were being severely compromised. The Germans were successfully tapping Allied telephone lines, deciphering codes and repeatedly capturing runners sent out to deliver messages directly.
The huge problem was solved when an army captain heard two Choctaw soldiers talking in their own language and realized the potential for solving the communications problem. Using a field telephone the captain tested the idea and asked the men to deliver a message in their native tongue which their colleagues quickly translated back into English. The test was successful and the Choctaw Telephone Squad was established and 'code talking' was born.
Philip Johnston survived the Great War and returned home to work as a civil engineer. He was in his fifties when WW2 broke out. Motivated by his experiences on the WW1 battlefields in Europe he developed a plan that he was sure could help the war effort.
His plan was centered around using Navajo Code Breakers to help the marines fighting in WW2. His proposal was initially greeted with skepticism by the US Marine Corps.
Following the Great War, and the success of the Native American Code Talkers, German nationals had visited America with the express purpose of learning the languages of Native American Indian tribes. It was therefore believed that the notion of using these languages to protect military communications had long passed as the Third Reich would have knowledge of the languages.
Philip Johnston persisted with his plan. The Navajo language was unique and did not have a written alphabet. The Navajo tribe came from a remote region, and only a handful of non-Navajos had any knowledge of the language.
The WW2 Marines were fighting bloody battles with the Japanese in the Pacific. As the marines stormed the beaches they communicated via radio but the Japanese were able to intercept and translate their messages.
In the height of battle there was no time to use a code machine. Once again US communications were being compromised by the enemy, just as they had in WW1
Eventually Philip Johnston's idea was put to the test at Camp Elliott near San Diego, California. The trial run was successful and the recruitment and training of the Navajo Code Talkers began in May 1942.
On September 22, 1942 Philip Johnston was granted a special dispensation to serve in the Navajo Code Talking Program as a Staff Sergeant and he served throughout WW2 as a training school administrator for the top secret program.
Recruitment was conducted on the Navajo Reservation. Each recruit had to be fluent in both Navajo and English and physically fit. The recruits were sent for basic training at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot boot camp.
The Navajos were told only that they would be 'specialists' and would serve both in the United States and overseas. Serving in the US Army was a culture shock to many of the Navajos who had never left the reservation and had no knowledge of the US military nor of the battles being fought in WW2.
The Navajo recruits were then taken to Camp Pendleton for training in standard radio procedures. Initially it would appear that the Navajo language itself would be enough to provide the required level of security but from the beginning it became obvious that some forms of word substitution would be necessary as the Navajo language contained no words to describe the modern instruments of war.
Words from the Navajo language were substituted as tanks were called 'turtles', airplanes were called 'birds', bombers were called 'buzzards', grenades were called 'potatoes' and battleships were called 'whales'.
The Marines Corps soon realized that they could make the code system virtually unbreakable by further encoding the language which would completely confuse their Japanese enemies.
The Navajos devised a new Marine Corps military code by creating a dictionary using word substitution together with a secret 26-letter phonetic alphabet. The 26-letter phonetic alphabet, used Navajo names for 18 birds or animals plus the words like ice for I, nut for N, quiver for Q and yucca for Y. Over 200 English words were substituted with Navajo equivalents.
The secret codes were memorized for added security to protect the code from falling into enemy hands. The the code became undecipherable to everyone but the Navajo Code Talkers.
The Navajos used their top secret skills in secure communications in the South Pacific on Saipan, Tarawa, Peleliu and Guam.
At the Battle of Iwo Jima over 800 messages were transmitted without error by 6 Navajos working 24 hour shifts during the first 48 hours of the conflict as US marines struggled to get to shore under intense Japanese bombardment.
Major Howard, the 5th Marines Division Signal Officer, stated that, 'Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken the island. The work ofthe Navajos on Iwo Jima was impressive...they provided an indispensable advantage to those who wore the Globe and Anchor".
In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. By the end of WW2, in 1945, over 400 Navajo Code Talkers served in the Marine Corps as Code Talkers.
The story of the Navajo code talkers were featured in the 1959 movie 'Never So Few' starring Charles Bronson and in the 2002 movie 'Windtalkers' starring Nicolas Cage.
The Navajos were sworn to secrecy and their achievements in WW2 were not made public for many years. In 2001 Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor available in the United States, to recognize the unique contribution made by the Navajo Code Talkers of WW2
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