How Navajos Helped Win World War II

By Myra Saturen
November 09, 2012

They created and used an unbreakable code during World War II, enabling the Allies to win essential victories in the South Pacific.  The young men, mostly farmers and shepherds before, changed the course of history.  They were the Navajo Code Talkers.

David Manuel of the Lancaster Speakers Bureau told the story of these dauntless Marines at theDavid Manuel Monroe Campus of Northampton Community College (NCC) on November 8 as part of Veteran's Week at the campus. A large audience attended the event sponsored by the Band of Brothers. 

In the past, the Navajo had not been treated well by the United States government.  Expelled from their traditional lands, they were forced on brutal, sometimes fatal marches to areas 400 miles distant in the mid nineteenth century.  Yet, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Navajo men rushed to armed services enlistment centers, old hunting rifles and muskets at hand.  As it turned out, they fought in their unique way by doing what no one else could do--creating a secret code based on the ancient Navajo language and their own ingenuity.  No one--not the Germans nor the Japanese, who had succeeded in breaking previous codes--were able to decipher this one. 

In fact, for twenty-five years nobody aside from the surviving code talkers themselves had access to their secret.  Sworn to silence for a quarter century, the code talkers revealed their methodology only in 1977. 

How did the Navajo Code Talkers, who numbered about 200, invent their code?  Starting with the Navajo language, an oral tongue, they took ideas from nature, modeling signals after animals or leaves.  They formulated an alphabet, relied on short expressions and memorized what grew into 508 terms by the battle in Saipan, in 1944.  By creating multiple versions of a cypher, the coders derailed potential interceptors, who typically search for repetition of symbols. 

Except for two talkers who stayed behind to train new recruits, the rest worked on South Pacific islands, where they encountered multiple dangers from snipers, disease-bearing insects, snakes, and booby-traps.  Their physical resemblance to the Japanese sometime posed perils of misidentification, too.  The first among the Navajo soldiers to perish was slain in this way by friendly fire.  One soldier, Charlie Begay, thought killed in an ambush, reappeared alive to astonished troop mates.  Eleven soldiers did lose their lives. 

Manuel said that the Navajos' survival skills, developed by having lived on a reservation, came to their aid.  Undiminished by years of light pollution, the Navajo soldiers' eyesight retained keen night vision. Accustomed to life in the desert, the code talkers could spot enemy soldiers hiding behind brush and crawl through the landscape undetected.  Overall, the code talkers played key roles in Okinawa, Iwo Jima and other islands.  During the battle of Iwo Jima, they sent 800 messages. 

Manuel's story of the code talkers did not end with the conclusion of World War II.  "The war was over," Manuel said, "but the code lived on."  The talkers continued to use their code to relay information about the war's aftermath.     

Moreover, working on the code affected the future of the Navajo themselves as well as that of the United States and the world.  Returning home, the code talkers encouraged educational reform, business loans, job development, even tourism.  A school they helped found, Navajo Community College, is today's Diné College, with whom Northampton Community College has a thriving cultural exchange program. 

The story of the Navajo Code Talkers is coming to be more widely known and appreciated.  "They saved countless lives," Manuel said, adding that many people think that without them, the war might not have been won. 











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