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The real Navajo code talkers: World War II's secret heroes created a code that proved unbreakable. Now they're movie stars. (times past).

Early in World War II, an American Marine radio operator in the jungles of Guadalcanal heard over his headset what sounded like gibberish. At first, he thought it was the Japanese, whose forces were fighting for control of the South Pacific island. But soon he discovered that the chatter came from his own troops. "What's going on over there?" he radioed. "You guys drunk?"

Not at all. The Marine Corps actually had a top-secret experiment in the works. Specially trained soldiers from the Navajo tribe were sending coded messages back and forth in their own language. Before long, Navajo "code talkers" were relaying vital battlefield information faster than any code machines. And they could do it in a way that baffled the Japanese code breakers.

It was one of the most ingenious moves in military history. The movie Windtalkers, out in June, dramatizes the Navajo soldiers' mission. From May 1942 to the war's end in August 1945, more than 400 code talkers served in some of the Pacific's bloodiest battles. They were key in the Allied victory against Japan, but their contribution was a military secret for decades.


The idea for the code talkers began with Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary, who grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and spoke the language fluently. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Johnston had a flash of inspiration:

Their language might offer a solution for the oldest problem in military operations--sending a message that no enemy could understand.

Unlike English, the unwritten Navajo language is tonal. Just a slight change in the pitch of one vowel can completely alter a word's meaning. That makes their words almost impossible for most people to pronounce correctly. In 1942, only about 30 outsiders spoke the language fluently.

In May 1942, the Marines secretly recruited 29 young Navajo men and had them create a military code (see "Language Barrier," left). The men turned to nature for many code words. "Dive bomber" became "chicken hawk," and "tank" became "tortoise." Code talkers could also spell out unusual words. For the English letter "A," they might use "ant," which in Navajo is "wol-la-chee."

An order that read "Company E, move 50 yards, left flank of Company D" could be translated into code as: "Mexican ear, mouse victor elk 50 yards, left flank ocean fish Mexican deer." Spoken in Navajo, these words were incomprehensible to speakers of English or Japanese. One U.S. soldier said the Navajo code sounded like "American double-talk mixed with the sound that resembles water being poured from a jug into a bathtub."

Though they suffered from discrimination and lack of certain rights, the Navajo were eager recruits for the expanding Marine program. Several 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds lied about their age to enlist. Code talker Teddy Draper found his new position ironic:

When I was going to boarding school, the U.S. government told us not to speak Navajo. But during the war, they wanted us to speak it.

The code talkers proved valuable in many ways. In the summer of 1944, U.S. artillery accidentally began pounding fellow Americans on the Pacific island of Saipan. The Marines being shot at radioed back frantically to cease fire. But this sounded like a Japanese trick, and the shelling continued. Finally, someone asked, "Do you have a Navajo?" A code talker came on the radio, spoke to another Navajo, and the shelling stopped.

The Navajo Marines were so important that they were assigned bodyguards. The guards were to protect them from being mistaken for Japanese and from being taken by the Japanese.

However, the life of a code talker was not as important as the code itself. Only after the war did the Navajo soldiers find out that their bodyguards had orders to shoot them if captured--an ethical dilemma Nicolas Cage grapples with playing a bodyguard in Wind-talkers. It never came to that.


Comanche, Choctaw, and other Native Americans also served as code talkers, but the Navajo were the largest and most influential group in the war. Their shining moment came during the crucial battle for the island of Iwo Jima, in early 1945. As one Marine officer, Maj. Howard Connor, said:

The entire operation was directed by Navajo code.... They sent and received over 800 messages without an error. Were it not for the Navajo code talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima.

After the war, the Navajo soldiers were told to keep quiet about the code in case it was needed again. Finally, the Pentagon publicly acknowledged the code talkers in 1969. They became instant celebrities--marching in parades and appearing on TV. In July 2001, the original code talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal, and President Bush spoke of the hundreds who served and the 13 who died in combat.

Today, the Navajo veterans are appreciative but modest. "The Marine Corps is like a wheel with many different spokes," says code talker Kee Etsicity. "The code talkers were one spoke."

Language Barrier

For their code, the Navajo Marines of World War II devised an unwritten, memorized dictionary that assigned Navajo words to more than 450 frequently used military terms. The key: subtle pitch changes and complex syntax. The result: a method of communication that baffled Japanese code breakers. Below are some examples.
fighter plane


big singer
white caps
black sheep
iron fish
turkey rain

SOURCE: Department of the Navy--Naval Historical Center

lesson plan 4 * HISTORY/TIMES PAST

The Real Navajo Code Talkers

FOCUS: Navajo Language Goes to War, Creating an Unbreakable Code


To help students understand one of the most intriguing episodes in the history of American warfare: the Navajo code talkers of World War II, who used their unwritten language to transmit messages the Japanese could not decode.

Discussion Questions:

* Why do you think schools discouraged Navajo students from speaking their language?

* Do you believe there is any special reason why the Navajo code talkers turned to nature for their code words?

* What is your reaction to code talker Kee Etsicity's observation that the code talkers were just one spoke in the Marine Corps wheel?


Background: Students should understand that the Navajo code was indecipherable to Navajo who had not learned the code dictionary. Each code talker memorized these terms, so there were no code books that could be captured. Indeed, one Navajo who was not a code talker was captured and tortured by the Japanese, but he couldn't help them because the code was gibberish to him.

Critical Thinking: Call students' attention to the discrimination faced by Native Americans in the Western U.S. in the 1940s. Tell them that this discrimination included being denied the right to vote. Further, living conditions on reservations were often appalling.

Note Teddy Dapper's recollection about being discouraged from using his language at school. Tell students that young Native Americans were often punished when they were discovered speaking their language on school grounds. Ask students why they think Navajo became eager recruits, given the discrimination they faced.

Name Game: Enhance students' interests in this chapter of history by having them draw up their own code words. On the board, copy the list of military terms in "Language Barrier" and ask students to brainstorm codes (one to three words) for each military term. Caution students not to use words that sound too much like the real thing.

Web Watch: To see the complete Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary, go to www. To see the code talkers exhibit at the National Security Agency, go to

QUIZ 4 Use with History, pages 25-26. Fill in the blank.

1. The idea for the code talkers came from a man who was the son of a -- to the Navajo.

2. The Navajo borrowed liberally from nature in building their code dictionary of military terms. One example: " -- fish" was the term they used for submarine.

3. Unlike English, Navajo is a tonal language, which means that just a slight change in the -- of a vowel can completely change a word's meaning.

4. The Navajo code talkers were so important to the military effort that the Marines assigned them bodyguards, both to protect them from being mistaken for -- and from being captured by the enemy.

5. In the battle for the critical island of --, Navajo code talkers were called the key to victory.

1. missionary. 2. iron. 3. pitch or sound. 4. Japanese or Japanese troops. 5. Iwo Jima.
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Author:Price, Sean
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 6, 2002
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