Navajo Nation – Inventors of the Unbreakable Code

Adapting their language in the service of secure communication, the Code Talkers provided a critical advantage

Amongst the most urgent challenges the United States faced in World War II was the capability to send, receive, and decipher codes – preserving U.S. military secrets against foreign adversaries. This capability would give the nation the edge it needed in the battlefield.

This was not a new challenge for the United States. During the First World War, the U.S. employed hundreds of Native Americans – Choctaw, Comanche, and Cherokee – to safely and securely send code overland and seas. Following the war, other countries dispatched people to the U.S. to learn these languages and effective methods.

Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran who grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, recognized the critical importance that linguists played in the previous war and how the Navajo language could provide the secret sauce for U.S. code-making.

What makes the Navajo language unique? It is not written down.

The spoken word would provide an extra layer of complexity for enemies attempting to intercept U.S. secrets. Seeing the promise of the Navajo language, he advocated for their service to the Marine Corps. Almost immediately, the Marine Corps green-lighted the proposal and their enlistment.   

Preparing for Battle

Three months later, 29 Navajos arrived at the Recruit Depot in San Diego to begin basic training. They were asked to join a special program being set up along with other Navajo-speakers who had already enlisted in the Marines.

After completing basic training, the Navajos moved to Camp Elliot in San Diego, where they received special training in radio transmission and operation and, together, devised the first Navajo code.

The code was extremely complex and had to be fully memorized by each code talker. It consisted of 211 Navajo words that were then given military meaning. For example, “fighter plane” became “hummingbird” (“da-ha-tih-hi” in Navajo), and “submarine” became “iron fish” (“besh-lo” in Navajo). The code was an intricate web of words designated to military terms and individual letters — it was impossible to break.

Warzone Operations

On August 7, 1942, the Navajo Code Talkers conducted their first major operation — the 1st Marine Division, along with 15 Navajo Code Talkers, hit the beaches of Guadalcanal. This was the first occasion where Navajo code was used in battle – and with success.

From 1942 to the end of the war in the Pacific, Navajo code talkers were used in every major operation that involved the Marines.

In one famous example, during the nearly month-long battle for Iwo Jima, six Navajo Code Talker Marines successfully transmitted more than 800 messages without error.

The number of Navajos serving the U.S. war efforts would grow to more than 375 over the course of the war – contributing to the Guadalcanal Campaign, the battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Guam, among many others.

The Japanese military, once exceptionally adept at intercepting and decrypting U.S. code, was unable to decrypt a single word from the code talkers.

National Security Legacy

In 1968, the U.S. Government declassified the important role that the Navajo Code Talkers played in U.S. military operations. They were also recognized at a White House event in 2017.  

Through the efforts of people like the Navajo Nation, code-creating and breaking has played a pivotal role in U.S. intelligence and national security efforts.

The National Archives provides a window to the public on the people, artifacts and stories behind remarkable stories like the Navajo Code Talkers.