In 1982, when President Reagan declared August 14 of each year Navajo Code Talkers Day, the recognition was long overdue. Not until 2000 did President Clinton sign the bill awarding the original 29 Code Talkers the Congressional Gold medals that President George W. Bush presented in July 2001.
In total, there were 400 Navajo Code Talkers, including the original 29. Today, only four code talkers remain. It is important to remember and honor them for their contributions to the Allied effort in the Pacific during World War II. They played a key role in defeating the Japanese. How?
Throughout the early stages of World War II in the Pacific, the Japanese became masters at breaking the codes used by the U.S. military.
It enabled them to preempt U.S. movements and strategies, to be ready when Allied forces invaded islands and mount their own attacks in advance. Because the Cherokee and Choctaw served so efficiently and bravely using their languages during World War I, Japan and Germany later sent agents to the United States to learn those languages, according to the CIA. Consequently, those languages were not effective during World War II.
The Allies needed a new and unbreakable code – one the Japanese cryptographers simply could not crack. The answer came from some of the original Americans: The Navajo, or Diné – the people – of the Southwest. A civil engineer named Phillip Johnston, whose parents had been missionaries on the Navajo reservation, had learned the language and proposed it to the Marine Corps.
The Navajo never wrote nor published their language. They spoke it only. Thus, the Japanese and Germans who studied native languages between the world wars had no resources to help them understand the Navajo language. An alphabet was developed in the 1930s by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but used only on the reservation.
The Marine Corps recruited the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, who used their language to create the code. By the time the war ended, roughly 400 in all learned the code and served. They served at the front lines during some of those most fierce fighting in the Pacific. They translated messages written in English into the code, sending them to another Navajo who translated them back into English on the other end.
They worked in teams, carrying radios with them. They moved frequently and quickly after transmitting because although the Japanese could not break the code, they could zero in on where the radio signal originated and send in artillery or soldiers to eliminate the source. So they moved frequently, and often under fire by the enemy.
They knew their code so well that they could translate and send messages in 2½ minutes, according to Chester Nez one of the original 29 Code Talkers. Nez wrote in his memoir, “Code Talker,” that the original, machine-reliant system would have taken four hours to accomplish the task. Nez wrote the first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.
Nez served on the islands of Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Guam, and Bougainville. The Code Talkers not only saved innumerable American lives, but also deserved significant credit for Allied forced taking islands including Iwo Jima.
Nez, the last of the original 29 Code Talkers, died in June 2014. Only four of the 400 – are still living in this world.
The government declassified the code, which appears in the book by Nez, in 1968.