The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II used the Native-American language as a basis for transmitting encrypted messages. During the first few months of WWII, Japan was able to break every code the United States had devised. This resulted in the Japanese ability to anticipate the action of the United States. As a result, the codes became more complex and both sending and encrypting them took hours. Messages sent to military leaders at Guadalcanal were taking as long as two and a half hours to decode. Leaders complained, arguing the US military needed a better, more streamlined way to communicate.
A gentleman named Phillip Johnston, who was a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles, learned of this problem. Having grown up on a Navajo reservation, Johnston – one of the few outsiders fluent in the Navajo language – had a solution. This Nataive-American language does not have an alphabet and Johnston realized that without early exposure to it, the Navajo language was almost impossible to master, making it a potential basis for an indecipherable code. Johnston came up with a plan and was able to demonstrate it to a number of top commanders, who were impressed with his presentation. They granted him permission to begin a trial program.
It was early in 1942 when Johnston recruited the first of the Code Talkers. The 29 Navajos – often referred to as the ‘original 29’ - who participated are credited with conceiving the code – though it was changed and expanded on throughout the war. Some of the boys recruited were as young as 15 and others were as old as 35. Because many of them lacked birth certificates, the military had no way of verifying their ages. It wasn’t until after the war their actual ages were discovered. Whether young or old, they were all more than capable of handling the rigors of basic training.
Stationed at Camp Pendleton, the group created a code that was both ingenious and effective. It was originally comprised of 200 or so terms, but by the end of the war, it had expanded to over 600. The messages could be communicated in 20 seconds. Prior to this code, the coding machines would have taken closer to 30 minutes for the same message.
Once they completed their training, the USMC sent the Code Talkers to various Marine Divisions throughout the Pacific theater. Though many of the commanders were initially skeptical, it wasn’t long before they earned their respect. The Navajo Code Talkers were not permitted to write down any part of the code, not even for reference. Books devised for training were used in the classroom early and not permitted in the field. These men were the living codes whose quick recall and uncanny precision proved vital in saving thousands of lives. During the first two days of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the code talkers successfully coded more than 800 transmissions without a single error.
To date, the Navajo Code Talkers code remains the only unbroken code in the history of modern military. The code is widely recognized as a critical key in the success of each of the major engagements in the South Pacific. Not only is it credited with saving countless lives, it is believed to have greatly aided in ending the war.
Despite their successful and valuable contribution to World War II, the code talkers did not receive recognition for their work until it was declassified in 1968. Then in 1982, President Reagan awarded each of the code talkers a Certificate of Recognition. He also declared August 14, 1982 ‘Navajo Code Talkers Day’.
Then, in December of 2000, a law was passed which awarded each of the ‘original 29’ Navajo Code Talkers with the Congressional Gold Medal. All others who qualified – an estimated 300 - as a Navajo code talker were awarded the Congressional Silver Medal. Finally, in November, 2008 The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 was passed. It recognized all the Native American code talkers who served for the US military in both World War I and World War II.