Unbreakable: The Navajo Code Talkers

Posted on October 24, 2016

Michael E. Haskew

The need for swift communication in the heat of battle was readily apparent during the Solomon Islands Campaign. Responding to Japanese attacks, calling in artillery support, and relaying orders to front-line units without allowing the enemy to read the radio traffic offered a distinct tactical advantage for the Marines on Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and elsewhere.

Navajo Code Talkers

he Navajo Code Talkers rendered valuable service on New Britain and elsewhere during the Pacific War. Two of the Code Talkers, Henry Bake and George Kirk, are shown plying their craft in this wartime image. Image is courtesy of the book The Marines in World War II

That advantage was provided by a small group of Native Americans who used a dialect of their own tongue, one that communicated with sounds that were sometimes reminiscent of gurgling water. These were the Navajo Code Talkers.

Convincing the Military

Although the idea was not totally new—Native Americans had served in a similar capacity on a limited basis during World War I—the concept was revived early in World War II by Philip Johnston, the son of a Protestant missionary who had grown up on a Navajo reservation.

Johnston traveled to Camp Elliot near San Diego, California, and proposed a Code Talker unit to Lieutenant Colonel James E. Jones, the area signal officer. Jones was skeptical at first, but a demonstration message convinced him.

The colonel admitted that it would have taken his own communications team two hours to encode and decode a message that Navajo recruits dispatched and delivered in the startlingly short span of two minutes.

Recruiters visited Navajo reservations, and soon 29 young men were in training. After the Marine landings on Guadalcanal, 27 of these Code Talkers were ordered to the island while two stayed in the United States as instructors. By the time the war ended, more than 400 Navajo Code Talkers volunteered. They rendered valuable service during Marine combat operations across the Pacific.

Recognizing the Navajo Code Talkers

The existence of the Code Talker program remained secret until it was declassified in 1968. Afterward, the surviving Code Talkers received recognition that was long overdue.

President Ronald Reagan proclaimed August 14, 1982, as National Code Talker Day. In 2000, a Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the original 29 Code Talkers and Silver Medals were presented to others in the program.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Code Talkers Recognition Act, saluting the Native American Code Talkers who served in both world wars. These included Cherokee and Choctaw military personnel.

Michael E. Haskew is the editor of WWII History Magazine and the former editor of World War II Magazine. He is the author of a number of books, including THE MARINES IN WORLD WAR II. The Sniper at War and Order of Battle. Haskew is also the editor of The World War II Desk Reference with the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. He lives in Hixson, Tennessee.

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