“Navajo Code Talkers”
Southwest Crossroads Spotlight
“Navajo Enlistees, ca. 1942,” Milton Snow (Photographer)
Although the United States government finally granted citizenship to Native Americans in 1924, the states of New Mexico and Arizona denied native people the right to vote until 1948. Nevertheless, during World War I (1917-1919) many Native Americans, including Navajos, enlisted to fight for their country. In 1941 when the United States entered World War II, more than 3,600 Navajo men enlisted. Some of them were too young, but they lied about their age so that they could fight.
In May of 1942, the Navajo Tribal Council gave the US Marine Corps permission to recruit young Navajo men for a special, secret war assignment. These soldiers developed and memorized a secret code based on the Navajo language so that soldiers in combat could communicate without the enemy’s understanding what they said. The code, created from the complex and little-known Navajo language, proved to be unbreakable. Only Navajo members of the US Marine Corps could send or receive these messages.
The first group of code talkers had to chose words for military terms that were not part of the Navajo language. Chicken hawk was code for “helicopter.” War chief and two star meant “commanding general” and “major general.” Other terms stood for letters in the English language. Ant, apple, and ax stood for the letter “a.” Bear, badger, barrel stood for “b,” and so on. Code talkers memorized all the code words so that there was no written list that might fall into enemy hands. “Navajo Marine Code Talkers,” Unidentified (Photographer)
More than 400 Navajo code talkers participated in key battles against Japanese forces in the Pacific. They fought and coded messages at Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Guadalcanal. These battles were even more dangerous for Navajos than other American soldiers. Because of similarities between Navajo and Japanese facial features, US troops sometimes fired at code talkers by mistake.
The program was a great success. Navajo code talkers proved to be among the bravest and most valuable American soldiers fighting in World War II. They saved many lives by transmitting important information that the enemy could not understand and take advantage of. Still, the federal government did not recognize their special service until long after the war. In 1971 President Richard Nixon awarded a Certificate of Appreciation to the Navajo code talkers. He stated that their “patriotism, resourcefulness, and courage have earned them the gratitude of all Americans.”