Recalls Navajo Code Talkers' War in the Pacific
By Cpl. Cullen James, USA
Special to American Forces Information Service
FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. America's World War II island-hopping
campaign in the Pacific was about to start in 1942, and
the U.S. military still didn't have something it desperately
needed a communications code the Japanese couldn't
Then, Philip Johnston had a revolutionary idea: Use the
native language of the Navajo Indians. Johnston, the son
of a missionary to the Navajos, was one of the few outsiders
who could speak the tribe's tongue fluently. The language
is unique to the Navajos and had no written form at that
time, so a person who didn't know the oral vocabulary was
Johnston tried several times to convince the Navy his idea
had merit, but failed. It was a call to then-President Franklin
D. Roosevelt that finally convinced the Navy to give his
idea a shot, said John Goodluck Sr., a Marine Corps Navajo
code talker during the war.
For the test, he said, the military set radios 300-400 yards
apart and sent coded messages using both Navajo code talkers
and regular Morse code machines. "The code talkers
deciphered the message in under a minute, the machine took
an hour," Goodluck said. After military approval, the
Navajo council had to decide whether to support the idea.
"Everyone on the council was for it except for one.
They slept on it for a night and decided to do it
they said it was good and important to support it,"
he said. Goodluck and others went to Camp Pendleton, Calif.,
for Marine Corps basic training and code-talking school
and then headed to the Pacific. Eventually, 379 code talkers
"Some say there were 400, but many failed," Goodluck
said. "You had to understand both Navajo and English."
Code talkers' messages were strings of seemingly unrelated
Navajo words. They would translate each word into English,
and then decipher the message by using only the first letter
of each English word. For example, several Navajo words
could be used to represent the letter "a"
"wol-la-chee" (ant), "be-la-sana" (apple)
and "tse-nill" (ax). The code was unbreakable
so long as an eavesdropper didn't know the oral vocabulary.
While the Navajos used more than one word to represent letters,
about 450 common military terms had no equivalent and were
assigned code words. For example, "division" was
"ashih-hi" (salt); "America" was "Ne-he-mah"
(Our mother); "fighter plane" was "da-he-tih-hi"
(hummingbird); "submarine" became "besh-lo"
(iron fish); and "tank destroyer" was "chay-da-gahi-nail-tsaidi"
Just by speaking their language, the Navajos could easily
transmit information on tactics and troop movements, orders
and other vital battlefield communications over telephones
and radios. "We were always on the radio. We would
see a ship or airplane and tell them what we saw,"
Goodluck said he served in the 3rd Marine Division from
March 1943 to December 1945 and participated in the invasions
of Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomon Islands,
Guam and Iwo Jima.
After the war, Goodluck returned to Arizona and worked for
the U.S. Public Health Service as a truck driver, ambulance
driver and translator for English-speaking physicians on
the reservations. "They didn't have doctors or clinics
on the reservations when I first started. The nurses had
to carry these huge bags and would give the shots to people
in the areas we visited," he recalled.
The Department of Defense officially and openly honored
its Native American code talkers in 1992. The services enlisted
code talkers from many tribes during the war. While their
purpose was a kind of open secret then, their contributions
were still largely unknown to the public. Now, however,
the Navajo code talker exhibit is a regular stop on the
(Cpl. Cullen James is a staff writer for the Scout newspaper
at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.)