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Navajo Windtalkers: America’s Secret Weapon

Navajo Windtalkers: America’s Secret Weapon
When the United States fought World War II, they ran the constant risk of information 
being intercepted over radio waves. Strong codes were crucial in communicating military 
messages, and the Japanese proved to be excellent decoders. Eventually, with the help of 
Navajo people, the government developed an effective code that helped the US defeat the 
Japanese. Military officers later observed, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines 
would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
The effective code was first conceived of by Philip Johnston in 1942. As the child of a 
missionary, he had spent much of his childhood on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. He 
was fluent in both English and Navajo by age 9, and he even served as translator when 
the tribe negotiated with President Theodore Roosevelt.


When Johnston read a newspaper article about the military’s need for more effective 
encoding, he thought the Navajo language would be useful. Few people were familiar 
with it, and its patterns were different from most known languages. 
Johnston brought his idea to a lieutenant colonel at California’s Camp Elliott. Johnston 
explained that he was fluent in Navajo and had many connections within the Navajo 
community. At first, military officers were skeptical. Military intelligence had 
successfully used Comanche and Choctaw languages in World War I, but only to a 
limited degree. One problem was that Nazi Germans were now infiltrating Native 
American tribes in order to study their languages. (Some posed as art dealers and 
anthropology students.) Also, a perceived hindrance was that many English terms – 
particularly those used to express modern military ideas – did not have equivalents in the 
Native American languages. 
But Johnston replied that the Navajo were among the few groups who had not yet been 
infiltrated by the enemy; the desert tribe was geographically more isolated than others, 
and fewer than thirty outsiders were believed to understand their language. Certainly they 
had not had contact with the Japanese. Johnston also proposed that the code talkers could 
give existing Navajo words new military meanings. For example, the Navajo term for 
“hummingbird” could represent “fighter plane”, and the word for “potato” could mean 
“hand grenade”. 
To convince the military, Johnston assembled tribal members who worked at a Los 
Angeles shipyard. The men’s test cases impressed the military, and a pilot project was 
soon authorized. Thirty Navajo men commenced work for the US Marines. 
Together with the military’s cryptographic officer, the recruits designed a code for 
maritime battle. For times when English words had to be spelled out, they decided to use 
letter substitutions from a Navajo noun or verb. This added an important layer of 
complexity. 
Once the code was created, the first Navajo recruits practiced until they were ready for 
deployment. At first this required memorization of about 200 terms; later this increased to 
more than 400. The men worked efficiently and processed codes about ninety times faster 
than machines! Most of these first recruits were transferred to Guadalcanal in the 
Solomon Islands to begin translating; a few stayed behind to train the next wave of 
recruits. They all became known as Code Talkers or Windtalkers. 
The Navajo Windtalkers were highly effective. The secret program eventually employed 
an estimated 400 translators (including a few Anglo-Americans). From 1942 to 1945, 
these unique recruits facilitated every Marine assault in the Pacific Ocean. After the 
Japanese surrender, the US kept the code secret. It stayed in use through the Korean and 
Vietnam wars. 
The Navajo Code Talkers were declassified until 1968. The Japanese then admitted that 
although they broke codes of the US Army and Navy, they were confounded by the 
Marines’ encrypted messages; the combination of English and Navajo, added to the 
Native American language’s complex syntax and tonal qualities, proved baffling.
The Pentagon honored the code talkers in 1992, and in December of 2000, New Mexico’s 
Senator Jeff Bingaman publicly awarded the code talkers and their families with medals 
of honor.


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