Invisible Heroes: The Navajo Code Talkers of WWII

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

Navajo Code Talkers, Banner, WWII, World War II, encryption

Never think that war is a good thing, grandchildren. Though it may be necessary at times to defend our people, war is a sickness that must be cured. War is a time out of balance. When it is truly over, we must work to restore peace and sacred harmony once again.”
~ Joseph Bruchac, Code Talker

History has a way of filtering harsh truths. Ugly gets whitewashed, minimized and revised until  details are lost or forgotten.

Black history is experiencing a reawakening that strips the filters away. Communities are engaging in dialog, acknowledging the brutal truths of the past so they can commit to a better future.

I learned a different history growing up and I am not afraid to acknowledge it. Aline’s post about what we didn’t learn is part of the impetus exposing the darker truths so we are not doomed to repeat them.

As America reopens its schools, it is also reopening history books to expose injustice and racism. Among the forgotten are the Native American Code Talkers.

Navajo Code Talkers – Invisible Heroes

Joseph Bruchac, Dog Tags, US Marine Corps, Navajo Code TalkersNavajo Code Talkers took part in every U.S. Marine Corps assault in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They transmitted messages by telephone and radio in their native language — a code the Japanese never broke.

Chester Nez was one of the original Navajo Code Talkers. He is also the only code talker to write about the experience. His story is about more than the war; it is also the story of the boy recruited from the harsh conditions of a reservation boarding school to serve his country.

Chester’s real name has been lost through poorly kept records and because it was important to strip his heritage from him. It is the name he was given when he was taken from his family and placed in the reservation school.

In 1942, he was recruited by the Marines and sent to Camp Pendleton. He was 14, one of the original 29 recruits. Chester died a hero at the age of 93, but recognition for his heroism came almost sixty years after the war ended.

A Harsh Reality

“Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”  These words, spoken by U.S. Cavalry Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, symbolized the brutal boarding school system created by the government, directed to kill, remove or assimilate Native Americans.

Navajo Family, Dineh, ReservationThe first of these opened in Carlisle Pennsylvania with a mandate that forbid Native American children from using their own languages and names, and from practicing their religion and culture.

They were given Anglo-American names, clothes, and haircuts, and told  their way of life was inferior to white people’s. Navajo children were severely punished for using their native language so some did not speak at all. Children disappeared or ran away; many never returned home. Those who remained would often meet secretly to tell stories and sing Navajo songs.

The irony of their story is that the same government that stripped them of their language recruited them to use that same language during World War II military operations.

A Language Like No Other

The English language can be spoken poorly and still be understood, but the Navajo language is like no other. Pronunciation is complex, and words must be heard before they can be spoken. From the time of their birth, Navajo children were exposed to the nuances and thought processes required by their language.

Many Navajo sounds are impossible for the unpracticed ear to distinguish. Inflection determines a word’s meaning. Depending on pronunciation, a Navajo word can have four distinct meaning and verbs are difficult and complex. Outsiders found the language incomprehensible, comparing it to the rumble of a freight train.

Military authorities chose Navajo as a code language because its syntax and tonal qualities were almost impossible for a non-Navajo to learn, and it had no written form.

Developing the Code

When the Navajo code was first developed it had 211 words with different meanings. Code talkers created an alphabet system that used Navajo words, instead of standard spelling.

Navajo Code words, Double Encryption, TranslationThey assigned an English word to represent each letter of the English alphabet. Those words were then translated into Navajo, and the Navajo word represented the English letter, creating a double encryption.

It took five days to devise the Navajo word equivalents for the full alphabet. After finishing the alphabet, they created and additional  220 terms for military concepts and equipment. The entire code had to be committed to memory.

Over 400 code talkers  participated in assaults in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.  Marines were able to openly send and receive encoded messages by radio or tactical telephone. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, six code talkers worked around the clock handling over 800 messages — all without error –- with a code never broken by the Japanese.

Forgotten Heroes

Nearly half a million Americans died during World War II but only 10 were Navajo Code Talkers. This statistic shows how important and how protected they were. The military kept the program a secret until 1968 claiming an ongoing need for the encrypted language.

When the war was over, the code talkers never existed.

No Recognition, No Benefits

Code talkers returned without recognition to communities suffering economic hardships. There were no opportunities for jobs, training or education. They were denied military benefits, including healthcare, promised to other returning soldiers.

They were often the targets of  racist policies. Indian veterans could not eat or drink in some establishments or vote in national or state elections. Some states actively campaigned to bar Native Americans from voting with the same tactics used to keep African Americans from the polls.

Native American’s were given the right to vote with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Navajo Code talkers, SurvivorsNavajo code talkers were officially recognized in 2001 when those still living received the Congressional Gold Medal. President George W. Bush called their work “a story of ancient people, called to serve in a modern war.”

In 2019, the Navajo Nation lost three code talkers in less than a month and the Arizona Republic began to document their stories. Only four are still living: Peter MacDonald,  Samuel F. Sandoval, Thomas H. Begay, and John Kinsel Sr.

Chester Nez died in 2014, the last of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers.








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