August 14, 2012 - National Navajo Code Talkers' Day

Ever since the U.S. declared itself an independent nation, Native Americans have served that nation in its armed forces. General George Washington praised the bravery of the Indians who fought under him—that's how far back I'm talking. But in World War II, Native Americans served the nation in a new way.

They created the only unbroken code in military history.

President Ronald Reagan said in 1982, as he made August 14 National Navajo Code Talkers' Day:

Equipped with the only foolproof, unbreakable code in the history of warfare, the [Navajo] code talkers confused the enemy with an earful of sounds never before heard by code experts. The dedication and unswerving devotion to duty shown by the men of the Navaho Nation in serving as radio code talkers in the Marine Corps during World War II should serve as a fine example for all Americans.

It is fitting that at this time we also express appreciation for the other American Indians who have served our Nation in times of war. Members of the Choctaw, Chippewa, Creek, Sioux, and other tribes used their tribal languages as effective battlefield codes against the Germans in World War I and the Japanese and Germans in World War II.

Wikipedia also lists bilingual Lakota, Comanche, and Meskwaki, and Basque soldiers, as additional WWII code talkers. But it is the approximately 400 Navajo Marines who were the most successful and (after the war) the most famous of the code talkers.

Why did Philip Johnston, a non-Navajo, suggest using the Navajo language as a code? He had been raised on the Navajo reservation, the son of a missionary, and was one of the few non-Navajos to speak the language fluently. He knew that the language had a complex grammar and was not understood by speakers of even the closest Na-Dene languages, and he knew that the language had never been written down before.

The first 29 Navajo soldiers recruited as code talkers devised the code. They decided that the Navajo word for potato would mean hand grenade, for example, and turtle would mean tank. They developed portmanteaus (combinations of two words in which both the sounds and the meanings are blended, such as “smoke” and “fog” blending to create “smog”) such as gofasters for running shoes and ink sticks for pens. (Some of these portmanteaus are still in use in the Marine corps today—the English versions, of course.)

The Navajo code talkers were able to cipher and decipher coded messages even faster than the coding machines in use at the time, and they were praised for their skill and accuracy as well. The famous battle of Iwo Jima, particularly, hung on their performance, as six code talkers worked around the clock for two days, sending 800 messages—all without error. Signal officer Major Connor claims that the U.S. would not have taken Iwo Jima, if it weren't for the Navajos' amazing performance.

To learn more, and to hear the Navajo language, watch this short video.

In 2000, the original 29 code talkers were awarded
gold medals, and the other Navajo code talkers were
awarded silver medals.

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