Navajo Code Talkers of World War II The Japanese military of World War II was relentless. Strategies, locations, and plans were often intercepted through open radio channels between the Allied forces and the Japanese commanders. As a result, the United States and the Allied forces developed a secret way of communicating in code words, so that Japanese and Axis powers could not understand the radio messages that they intercepted. The Axis did the same. However, the Japanese were remarkable at intercepting commands from radios and translating the English that came to them.
Also, they were extraordinarily talented in deciphering American code words. Thousands of American lives were being lost a day as a result of Japanese cracking the American codes. Because of this, Philip Johnston proposed using the Native American Navajo language as a code during the Pacific theatre of the war. At a time when the Japanese possessed the ability to break almost any American military code, the Navajo stepped forward and developed the most significant and successful military code of the time.
On December 7th, 1941, Japan declared war on the United States and initiated a foreign air attack on American-protected soil. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor with no warning, killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians and pulverizing the American Navy. A day later on December 8th, The United States responded by declared war on Japan. The Pacific battle largely involved huge Navy ships called aircraft carriers and dogfights in the damp gray sky. Regularly, orders and information were sent out from plane to plane, from ship to ship, and officer to officer on radio.
The radios were not encrypted or encoded like the secure-broadcasting we have today. All that a Japanese or American officer had to do to listen to his enemy was dial into the same radio channel. Some officer’s primary assignments were to listen in on enemy conversation. They translated the intercepted Japanese message and reported the information to their captain or commanding officer. Often, entire “arrangements of enemy troops, airplanes, ships, and submarines could be discovered” through this means of spying on the opponent (Christensen 2012). Conversely, the same possibility for the Japanese was present.
They could just as easily obtain delicate information about the United States military, especially the position of ships and planes in the navy. Soon after the Japanese realized what was happening, they developed a way to counter the radio-intercepting intelligence work. They developed complex codes and code words to speak over the radio so that United States and Allied forces could not understand what they were saying. While the Japanese code words supplied an advantage to the Japanese, the Americans soon counteracted with their own set of randomly picked code words.
There was no reason why “DUCKPIN identified General Eisenhower, nor why ZOOTSUIT referred to Auk, New Britain, or why OPIUM was the transfer of a Marine regiment to Samoa” (Bruchac 2005). However, the Japanese found it relatively simple to decipher American codes. Some experts speculate that Japanese radio-interceptor officers had an easy time cracking code words, because American officers would discuss the codes over the radio and could easily be recognized. Others speculate that Japan had spies inside the navy and the rest of the military to gather intelligence and information.
The United States military realized their codes had been broken or leaked soon after they had developed the code. The American navy had planned an ambush on the Kamandorski Islands, a small chain of Japanese held islands. When the “six naval battleships arrived on the supposed lightly-protected” islands, eight massive Japanese battleships” countered them (Lily 2001). Two Americans ships were heavily damaged, “The Salt Lake City and the Bailey, and more than 3,000” American officers were killed. After the Japanese had apparently cracked the code, many officers wondered what the solution would be.
As a resolution, some naval officers wanted to rearrange the code, assigning fresh new and random names to each location, movement, and strategy in the officer’s handbook. Others, however, disagreed with this idea because, as one sailor pointed out, “It didn’t work the first time. Why try it again? ” (Christensen 2012). Further, some proposed the idea of “sensible gibberish”. This idea was to make a code-language that Allied officers could easily understand and recognize, but be impossible or very difficult for Japanese officers to decode. Others offered having a rotating “code-bank” (Andrew 2004).
The idea stated that odd and even number days of the calendar would have different code names for each military term. This method was eventually placed into action, however, it proved too complex and confusing and a majority of officers reverted back to the “old code that the Japanese had already cracked, or they used no code at all” (Andrew 2004). Philip Johnston was the man who “proposed to the United States Marine Core (USMC)” the idea of using the Navajo language as a military code to be used in the Pacific against the Japanese during World War II (Gregory 2003).
Johnston was the son of a missionary who arrived on the western part of a Navajo Reservation in the mid-1890’s and eventually settled there. It is here that young Philip learned to speak Navajo while playing with other Navajo children. In the early 20th century Philip, along with his father and local “Navajo leaders, went to Washington D. C. to speak to newly-elected President Theodore Roosevelt to add more land to their Navajo Reservation” (Gregory 2003). Johnston was the Navajo/English translator between the reservation leaders and President Roosevelt.
Johnston attended college at Northern Arizona University and received an engineering degree. He served in the United States Army during World War I and learned of Comanche’s being used as code talkers by United States Army units. “Shortly before the onset of World War II, Johnston began thinking about the feasibility of” using the Navajo language to transmit military messages (Gregory 24). He was working as a civilian in Los Angeles when the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor. Six months after the war started, Philip recruited five Navajos, four working in the Los Angeles shipyards and one serving in the U. S.
Navy at San Diego, and “arranged a meeting with General Vogel” (Gregory 39). The Navajos were divided into two groups and with field telephones were put in separate rooms. Common military expressions were then coded into Navajo and decoded into English. After some deliberation by the Navajos to agree upon Navajo words to use, they verbally encrypted, transmitted and decoded the messages nearly verbatim from English, to Navajo and back into English. General Vogel was so impressed by this demonstration that he asked the Commandant of the Marine Corps to recruit 200 Navajos, but was only allowed to recruit 30 Navajos. 9 Navajos were recruited and reported for seven weeks of standard recruit training. “Upon completion of recruit train they were ordered to report to Camp Elliot for about three weeks of basic communications training whereupon” they were also ordered to develop a code based on the Navajo language (Lily 2001). Their stay in “Camp Elliot ended in early September 1942” and the first group of 25 Navajo code talkers was deployed to participate in the latter stages of the Battle of Guadalcanal (Gregory 2003).
Four code talkers, as they were nicknamed, were retained stateside to teach newly recruited Navajos the code and to help with recruitment efforts. Thankfully, the Navajo code worked splendidly. The Japanese had no Navajo translators and no access to one. As an added precaution, code talkers inserted additional barriers against Japan cracking their code. For example, they called a plane-dropped bomb a “chaotic, meaning egg of the blackbird” (Bruchac 2005). As a result, the Japanese no longer had the advantage over the Americans in cracking the code, or the ability to spy on the United States Military communication.
The Navajo code was so successful that military commanders credited it with saving the lives of countless thousands of American soldiers and with the “successful engagements of the U. S. in the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo, Jima, and Okinawa” (Lily 2001). The Navajo code talkers stepped forward and developed the most significant and successful military code of the time. Works Cited Andrew, Santella. “Navajo Code Talkers. ” We the People. (2004). Bruchac, Joseph. Code Talker: the Navajo Marines of World II.
Ontario: The Penguin Group, 2005. Chistensen, Allan. What You Really Don’t Know About World War II. New York: Lighthouse Publishing, 2002. Gregory, Eli. The Histories the Text Book Forgot: Modern Native Americans. Montreal: Mayflower Publishing Company, 2003. Lilly, J. P. My Grandfather’s Record of World War II. New York City: The Tower Publishing Group, 2001. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Allan Chistensen, What You Really Don’t Know About World War II, (New York: Lighthouse Publishing, 2002), 73. [ 2 ].
Joseph Bruchac, Code Talker: the Navajo Marines of World II, (Ontario: The Penguin Group, 2005), 27. [ 3 ]. J. P. Lilly, My Grandfather’s Record of World War II, (New York City: The Tower Publishing Group, 2001), 66. [ 4 ]. Allan Chistensen, What You Really Don’t Know About World War II, (New York: Lighthouse Publishing, 2002), 71. [ 5 ]. 5-6 Santella Andrew, “Navajo Code Talkers,” We the People (2004). [ 7 ]. 7 Eli Gregory, The Histories the Text Book Forgot: Modern Native Americans, (Montreal: Mayflower Publishing Company, 2003), 7. [ 8 ]. -10 Eli Gregory, The Histories the Text Book Forgot: Modern Native Americans, (Montreal: Mayflower Publishing Company, 2003), 16,24,39. [ 11 ]. J. P. Lilly, My Grandfather’s Record of World War II, (New York City: The Tower Publishing Group, 2001), 19. [ 12 ]. Eli Gregory, The Histories the Text Book Forgot: Modern Native Americans, (Montreal: Mayflower Publishing Company, 2003), 40. [ 13 ]. Joseph Bruchac, Code Talker: the Navajo Marines of World II, (Ontario: The Penguin Group, 2005), 34. [ 14 ]. J. P. Lilly, My Grandfather’s Record of World War II, (New York City: The Tower Publishing Group, 2001), 19.