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.
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
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
Navajo Code Talkers'
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
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
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
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.