Using the Navajo tribe of American Indians to provide cipher service during WW2 was the brainchild of Philip Johnston, the son of
missionaries who grew up on a Navajo Reservation. He was one of only 30 known non-native speakers of this complex language. The
Navajos were a fierce tribe of warrior stock and their language was oral only. Not having a written language was an advantage for
Johnston saw some Indian tribes used to encipher messages in WW1, so he took this proposal to the US Marine Corps in February of 1942,
just two months after the Pearl Harbor attack. In March of 1942 he was asked to give a demonstration to Major General Clayton B. Vogel,
the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet. He showed that under battlefield conditions, the Navajos could encipher,
transmit and decipher a 3 line English message in 20 seconds compared to the 30 minutes required for the cipher machine in use at the
time, the M-209. The first 29 Navajo code talkers were recruited in May of 1942 as a test of the program, which proved so successful
420 Navajo code talkers entered the Marine Corps.
Navajo Indian reservation
With 55,000 people, the Navajo tribe had twice the population of the next largest tribe and a reservation larger than West Virginia.
Since they were located in the arid deserts of northeast Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah, they had little contact with the
white population. This gave the military a large pool of draft age men to select from and the confidence that the language would not
be widely known. The large pool of men turned out to be critical since only about 40% of them spoke English and only 10% were literate.
The Navajos seem to take the rigorous Marine Corps boot camp training in stride, seemingly unaware they were being physically challenged.
They did not have modern conveniences at home and were use to a life of deprivation and hardship. They were not use to the loss of freedom
and close quarters of the military, however, but adjusted well. When the drill sergeants would yell at the recruits, "Anyone tired of
walking can start running!", the Navajo did not understand sarcasm and would start running.
One particular survival exercise required the recruits to take a full-gear hike in the desert for 2 days with only one canteen of water.
At night, the Navajos tapped into the native plants to fill up their canteens and had no problems on the second day while their fellow
soldiers were fainting from lack of water. The drill sergeants thought the Navajos were superhuman creatures.
The Navajo language was very difficult for a non-native speaker to understand, with the same word having different meanings depending on
the subtle use of tone, which could be high, low, rising or falling. Also, their language did not incorporate any English words. The
Navajo made up their own new words when the horse, rifle, etc. came along. Even when hearing this language, it is difficult to transcribe
into any English or Japanese equivalent in order to start the decipherment process.
Navajo Code Talkers Platoon at Camp Elliott
The Navajos supplemented
their native language with a lexicon of 450 military terms not previously known to them, such as tank, submarine, aircraft carrier, etc.
All these terms and many others had to be memorized without any notes or written codes. When they encountered a word that did not have
a Navajo equivalent or a code word, they would have to spell it out using Navajo words of "Ant" for A, "Bear" for B, "Cat" for C, etc.
Since they had to memorize the code words, they selected words that were descriptive and would not be easily mistaken over the radio in
front-line combat conditions. For example, ground forces used for amphibious assault were called "frogs", a route was a "rabbit trail",
a hand grenade was a "potato", a submarine was a "iron fish" and the United States was "our mother". They used names of various birds for
the types of aircraft, such as "hummingbird" for fighter jet and "sparrow hawk" for dive bomber. The bombs dropped by planes were called
"eggs". Some of the code words had a humorous side, the rival Army soldiers were "dog face" and the mortar was a "squat rifle". They
gave the various US Marine Corps units Navajo family names, such as "Feather People" or "Bitter Water People".
Navajo code talker using his ultra-portable TBY radio
this picture was the model for the commemorative medal, below
The Navajos played a significant role in every major battle of the Pacific from mid-1942 in the battle of Guadalcanal to the end of the war.
At the time they began, the Japanese were winning the battle of the Pacific in a rout. Crippling the US fleet in Pearl Harbor, plus the US
ramp up of fighting in Europe, allowed the Japanese to conquer most of the South Pacific at will. It didn't hurt that they had been
deciphering the US military codes for years and knew our every move. We had also cracked their codes, but could not counter their superior
The code talkers were accompanied at all times with a Marine whose job was to ensure his assigned Navajo code talker was not captured
alive by the Japanese. This was highlighted in the movie, "Windtalkers", starring Nicolas Cage who played the role of a Marine soldier
assigned to protect a Navajo code talker. Luckily, no Navajo code talker was ever captured. One Navajo soldier who was not a code talker,
however, was captured by the Japanese. Despite being tortured, he told his captors he could not understand the coded language, which may
have been partially true.
This was the only battlefield cipher used in WW2 that the Japanese were not able to decipher. The Navajo worked on the front lines
sending and receiving valuable intelligence about the enemy positions and movements. They were able to call in for reinforcements or
supplies without tipping off the Japanese about US vulnerabilities during the battles. The code talkers performed many duties in
addition to sending messages, with several receiving commendations for bravery. Seven code talkers were killed in action during the war.
In the battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, a 5th Marine Division signals officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the
clock. These six men sent and received over 800 messages during the first 2 days of battle, all without error. One of these men had his
foot blown off in battle and continued sending messages until he passed out. Major Connor later stated, "Were it not for the Navajos, the
Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."
After the war, the Navajo cipher remained a secret in case it needed to be used again. And, in fact, the code talkers were called on
again for use in the Korean War and at the beginning of the Vietnam War. These heroic veterans were largely unrecognized until the veil
was lifted in 1968, when their role in WW2 was declassified. In 2000, the Navajo code talkers were publicly honored by an act of congress,
awarding the original 29 Navajo code talkers with a Congressional Gold Medal, as pictured above. The remaining code talkers were later
awarded Congressional Silver Medals.
Since the cipher "machine" used in this case was a Navajo Indian, the only hardware to display are his tools to communicate this "analog"
code. The radio of choice in the field was the ultra-portable TBY radio as seen in the picture above. It was a backpack radio of relative
light weight and size for the time. They also used field phones if they were within wired distances.
See the Entire Collection of Cipher Machines
See detailed pictures of the Navajo Code Talkers TBY-2 radio and morse code key.
This is the ultra-portable TBY-2 radio, used by the Navajo Code Talkers. Note the small morse code key on top. The contract date for this
radio is Jan. 8, 1941, so this is an early version of this radio. The TBY was used throughout WW2, by then with a model number of TBY-8.