AN INDIAN TECHNIQUE

Code Talkers
Use of the Native Indian Tongue for Secure Communications

Secure and rapid communications are essential to effective operation on the battlefield, and military forces are working constantly to develop communications systems, methods, and techniques which will insure that an enemy does not gain access to friendly intentions. While cryptography is one of the standard means of maintaining security, it takes time — a critical element in military operations — to encode and decode messages from prearranged codes, and codes are subject to being broken. The most desirable method is direct and open on-the-spot transmission by voice over telephone or radio, and such a procedure must recognize that the enemy is always listening in.

DoD Honors Last Comanche World War II Code Talker
Arthur L. Money presents Charles Chibitty with a cased American flag that was flown over the capitol during ceremonies in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes. The 78- year-old Chibitty is the last surviving World War II Army Comanche "code talker." Money is the assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications, and intelligence. Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Broils, USA. Read Article

To confound the enemy, American forces in both World Wars used Indian personnel and their unique languages to insure secure communications. In World War I in France, the 142d Infantry Regiment had a company of Indians who spoke 26 different languages or dialects, only four or five of which had been reduced to writing. Two Indian officers were selected to supervise a communications system staffed by Choctaw Indians. They were used in the regiment's operations in October 1918, in the Chufilly-Chardeny zone, transmitting in their native tongue a variety of open voice messages, relating to unit movements, which the enemy, who was completely surprised in the action, obviously could not break.

In World War II in both major theaters of war, the U. S. Army used Indians in its signal communications operations. A group of 24 Navajos was assembled to handle telephone communications, using voice codes in their native tongue, between the Air Commander in the Solomon Islands and various airfields in the region. The U.S. Marine Corps also used Navajo code talkers extensively in the Pacific Theater. And in Europe, the 4th Signal Company of the Army's 4th Infantry Division was assigned 16 Comanches for employment as voice radio operators to transmit and receive messages in their own unwritten language.

The Armed Services ran special training courses both in the United States and in the operational theaters to instruct Indians in the basic communications techniques and to develop standard military phraseology and common military terms for the languages and dialects where such words may never have existed. The success of the experiment in using Indian code talkers is attested to in the reports of military units and commanders in the several services.

Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima: the Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the US Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language — a code that the Japanese never broke.

The idea to use Navajo for secure communications came from Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajos and one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. Johnston, reared on the Navajo reservation, was a World War I veteran who knew of the military's search for a code that would withstand all attempts to decipher it. He also knew that Native American languages — notably Choctaw — had been used in World War I to encode messages.

Johnston believed Navajo answered the military requirement for an indecipherable code because Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest. One estimate indicates that less than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language at the outbreak of World War II.

Early in 1942, Johnston met with Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and his staff to convince them of the Navajo language's value as code. Johnston staged tests under simulated combat conditions, demonstrating that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. Convinced, Vogel recommended to the Commandant of the Marine Corps that the Marines recruit 200 Navajos.

In May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp. Then, at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, this first group created the Navajo code. They developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized during training.

Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary

Once a Navajo code talker completed his training, he was sent to a Marine unit deployed in the Pacific theater. The code talkers' primary job was to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios. They also acted as messengers, and performed general Marine duties.

Praise for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Connor had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error.

The Japanese, who were skilled code breakers, remained baffled by the Navajo language. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the US Army and Army Air Corps, they never cracked the code used by the Marines. The Navajo code talkers even stymied a Navajo soldier taken prisoner at Bataan. (About 20 Navajos served in the US Army in the Philippines.) The Navajo soldier, forced to listen to the jumbled words of talker transmissions, said to a code talker after the war, "I never figured out what you guys who got me into all that trouble were saying."

In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. As of 1945, about 540 Navajos served as Marines. From 375 to 420 of those trained as code talkers; the rest served in other capacities.

Navajo remained potentially valuable as code even after the war. For that reason, the code talkers, whose skill and courage saved both American lives and military engagements, only recently earned recognition from the Government and the public.

 

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