During World War II, the United States had trouble devising codes which could not be broken by Japanese cryptologists. Those used by the US Army and Army Air Corp had both been decoded, and the Japanese were able to intercept and interpret messages regarding troop movements. In 1942, a group of Navajo Indians joined the United States Marines where they formed the 282nd Platoon and were given the task of devising a code using the Navajo language. The members of this unit become known as the Navajo code talkers.
The idea for the project was conceived by Philip Johnston, a man who had grown up in a missionary family on the Navajo reservation. When he had served in World War I, Johnston had become aware of an instance when Choctaw Indian soldiers had used their native tongue to confuse the Germans. Johnston was one of a limited number of non-native people fluent in Navajo, and he was convinced that the lack of a standardized Navajo alphabet or other written language materials made this a perfect choice for a code.
Navajo is a complex, tonal language in which one word with an identical pronunciation can have completely different meanings depending upon the tone used. Unlike many Native American tongues, Navajo has been spoken continuously for centuries and is still common on the reservations in New Mexico and Arizona. Despite this continuity, no formal alphabet or spelling had been accepted by the Navajo to create a written language at this time. This was a distinct advantage because there were no written resources to help cryptologists decode intercepted messages.
The first group of Navajos recruited for the project was made up of 29 young men. After basic training, their job was to develop code words in Navajo for over 400 military terms. In some instances, they were able to use terms that would paint a picture, such as the word for hummingbird to describe a fighter jet. Other code phrases used several words to spell out an English term. Once the code was designed, these original Navajo code talkers composed a complete dictionary to be memorized by other natives recruited for the project.
Many young men were eager to volunteer as Navajo code talkers, and between 1942 and 1945, over 400 of the 540 Navajo Marines served in this capacity. They were assigned to all six Marine divisions and were active in signal transmissions for all major Pacific battles including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Peleliu. Machines used earlier in the war to encode, transmit and decode took 30 minutes to communicate a three sentence messages. Navajo code talkers were able to accomplish the same feat in just twenty seconds.
All 411 code words were memorized while in training, and no written record was allowed in the war arena. The skill of the Navajo code talkers became legend, and they were credited with saving countless American lives. During the first 48 hours of the battle for Iwo Jima these warriors transmitted 800 messages without making a single error.
The Navajo code was never broken, and because of its strategic importance all of the Navajo code talkers were sworn to secrecy about their service. It was not until the project was declassified in 1968 that their story became public. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan offered the first official recognition of the group, and in 2000 Congress passed legislation honoring the 29 Navajo marines who designed the code with the Congressional Gold Medal.