code talkers in the field

Navajo Code Talkers History | Securing Victory

During World War II, the United States military enlisted the help of a select group of Navajo men who came to be known as the Navajo Code Talkers. Their mission was unlike any other; these individuals developed a code based on the complex, then-unwritten Navajo language to secure American military communications.

At a time when the integrity of the United States’ communication lines was of paramount importance, the Code Talkers’ unique contribution to cryptology rendered enemy attempts at deciphering critical information fruitless.

code talker training was rigorous

The development of the Navajo code was a guarded process, steeped in the cultural nuances of the Navajo language. The code initially consisted of a 211-word dictionary and 26-letter alphabet system devised so that each Navajo word represented a military term or letter.

This linguistic coding, combined with the intrinsic difficulty of the Navajo language, presented an indecipherable puzzle to Axis codebreakers. The success of the Navajo Code Talkers’ operations lay in the perfect fusion of linguistic prowess and loyalty, which in turn assured the security of military tactics and played a critical role in the United States’ successes in the Pacific Theatre.

Integrating the Navajo Code Talkers into the military strategy gave the United States a significant advantage, one that would remain a guarded secret for decades after the war’s end.

The Code Talkers’ valiant service not only exemplified the importance of linguistic skills in warfare but also highlighted a profound respect for the Navajo culture and its people—a recognition that was long overdue. Their story is a testament to the unexpected ways in which diverse cultural backgrounds can substantially contribute to a nation’s security during times of conflict.

The Navajo Code Talkers: Who They Were

The critical role of the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II cannot be understated, with their unique linguistic contributions revolutionizing military communications.

29 Young Navajo Men Recruited by the US Marines in 1942

The first group of Navajo Code Talkers comprised 29 young men who were enlisted by the US Marines in 1942. These individuals were tasked with the development of a new military code to secure communications during World War II.

Hailing from the Navajo Nation, they were selected for their fluency in the Navajo language—a Native American language known for its complexity and predominantly oral tradition.

Created a Code Based on the Complex, Unwritten Navajo Language

The code these Navajo men developed leveraged the intricate nature of the Navajo language, exploiting its unwritten nature and the absence of outside speakers to construct an undecipherable code.

They transformed their native tongue into a formidable tool through which the Marines could relay encrypted messages that enemy forces could not decode. This code ultimately consisted of a lexicon and grammatical rules alien to anyone not deeply versed in the Navajo language.

The Navajo Code: How It Worked

The Navajo Code was a communications milestone, providing secure radio transmissions through a system based on the Navajo language. This code took advantage of the complexity and nuances of the language to associate Navajo words with military terms, making the code almost impossible to crack.

Code Primarily Used Word Association, Assigning a Navajo Word to Key Phrases and Military Terms

reunion of navajo code talker veterans

In creating the Navajo Code, each military term that needed secure communication over radio channels was paired with a Navajo word. This technique was effective because Navajo was an unwritten language at the time and unknown to the world at large, thus securing communications from enemy interception.

Military terms were broken down and associated with everyday Navajo words based on function, shape, or purpose, which when communicated between Navajo speakers sounded like a string of unrelated words to non-Navajo listeners.

  • Submarine: Associated with the Navajo word for “iron fish.”
  • Airplane: Allocated Navajo terms related to various birds based on the type of plane.
  • Grenade: Given a term meaning “potato,” an item whose shape it resembled.

Examples: ‘Beshlo’ (Iron Fish) Meant ‘Submarine’, ‘Dahhetihhi’ (Hummingbird) Meant ‘Fighter Plane’

Specific examples of code words illustrate the clever associations made between the military terms and Navajo words:

  • Beshlo: Directly translates to “iron fish” in English, a clear visual metaphor for a submarine.
  • Dahhetihhi: Translates to “hummingbird”, signifying a fighter plane, which had the characteristics of being fast and agile, much like the bird itself.

Here are a few more coded terms:

Navajo WordEnglish TranslationMilitary Term
Besh-loIron FishSubmarine
Dah-he-tih-hiHummingbirdFighter Plane
Ne-he-mahOur MotherAmerica, Home country
Wo-la-cheeAntSoldier, Infantry

These words were spoken in sequences over military radios, creating a pattern of speech indiscernible to the uninitiated. As such, the Navajo Code enabled messages to be securely transmitted in the heat of battle, providing a strategic advantage to the American forces during World War II.

The Navajo Code Talkers in Action

During WWII, the Navajo Code Talkers became an indispensable asset to the US Marine Corps, utilizing their unique language to craft an unbreakable code that significantly contributed to American successes across the Pacific Theater.

Participated in Every Major Marine Operation in the Pacific Theater

The Navajo veteran code talkers saw action in all six Marine divisions, serving on the front lines across the breadth of the Pacific Theater. Their presence was a crucial element in the Allies’ combat strategy, ensuring secure and swift communication during key battles such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, and Okinawa.

Translated Three Lines of English in 20 Seconds, Compared to 30 Minutes with Existing Codebreaking Machines

code talker officer

The proficiency of the Navajo Code Talkers was unparalleled. They could translate three lines of English in a mere 20 seconds—far outpacing the cumbersome 30 minutes required by existing codebreaking machines of the time. This efficiency proved vital in combat situations where rapid and secure communication could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

  • Speed: 20 seconds for 3 lines of English.
  • Comparison: 30 minutes with other codebreaking machines.

Critical to the Victory at Iwo Jima, Transmitting More than 800 Messages Without Error

At the crucial Battle of Iwo Jima, the Code Talkers transmitted over 800 messages without a single error—solidifying their reputation for reliability. Their unbreakable code played a critical role in the American capture of the island, which provided a strategic base near the Japanese mainland and marked a turning point in the Pacific campaign.

  • Messages: Over 800.
  • Accuracy: 100% error-free.
  • Outcome: Essential to the capture of Iwo Jima.

Challenges Faced by the Navajo Code Talkers

The Navajo Code Talkers were a unique group who brought their native language to the battlefields of World War II. Despite their invaluable contributions, they faced significant difficulties throughout their lives, from stringent cultural oppression to the haunting memories of war.

Growing Up in an Era of Forced Assimilation

In the early 20th century, Native Americans, including those on the Navajo reservation, lived under policies of forced assimilation. These policies intended to integrate Native Americans into American society by stripping them of their cultural identity. For the Navajo, this often meant suppression of their language and customs, two integral aspects of their heritage.

Attending Boarding Schools That Forbade Speaking in Navajo

Among the initiatives for forced assimilation were the boarding schools Navajo children were sent to. These schools prohibited the speaking of Native American languages, including Navajo. Young Navajo were punished for using their mother tongue, a policy that tried to sever their connection to their culture and ancestry.

Stress of Combat and Its Effects on Their Lives After the War

During World War II, the Navajo Code Talkers were thrust into intense combat situations, where they used their language to create an unbreakable code. The stress of combat extended beyond the battlefield, with many experiencing significant post-war stress. These challenges were not only external but also internal, as returning veterans had to reconcile their harrowing experiences with the peacetime world to which they returned.

Recognition and Legacy

code talker section in the museum

After decades of relative obscurity, the pivotal role of the Navajo Code Talkers has received due recognition, and their legacy is permanently etched in the annals of US military history. This acknowledgment comes in forms of legislative acts, prestigious awards, and lasting memorials that celebrate their unique contributions to the United States during World War II.

‘Honoring the Code Talkers Act’ Introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman in 2000

In the year 2000, the US Congress, led by Senator Jeff Bingaman, passed the Honoring the Code Talkers Act. This act officially recognized the distinguished service of the Navajo Code Talkers. These servicemen, from the Navajo Nation, were critical to the US military’s success by using an unbreakable code based on the Navajo language.

Gold Medal Awarded to Each of the Original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, Silver Medal to Each Man Who Served with Them

Congressional Gold Medals were awarded to each of the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers, and Silver Medals were bestowed upon those who served alongside them. This distinction marked a long-overdue acknowledgment of their bravery and ingenious contribution that greatly assisted the Allied victory.

Navajo Code Talkers Memorial Erected in Window Rock, Arizona, in 2008

In 2008, recognition of the Navajo Code Talkers extended to the physical landscape of the Navajo Nation. A memorial, honoring their service and sacrifice, was erected in Window Rock, Arizona. This memorial stands as a testament to the legacy of these men and provides a tangible connection for posterity to understand and appreciate their unique role in history.


The Navajo Code Talkers played a pivotal role in World War II, demonstrating not only their linguistic expertise but also their unwavering dedication to the US military effort. Their unique contribution to American history is a testament to the innovative approaches to warfare and the strategic value of indigenous knowledge.

  • During their military service, these code talkers utilized the Navajo language to create an unbreakable code.
  • They provided a means of secure communication amidst the cacophony of war, significantly contributing to the success of American forces.

The legacy of the Navajo Code Talkers endures, symbolizing a broader narrative of bravery and ingenuity. It underscores the importance of embracing diverse skill sets in safeguarding national interests. The recognition of their service and sacrifice has grown over the years, ensuring that their story remains an indelible part of the fabric that is American history.