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Lost in Translation, World War II Navajo Code Talkers Save Lives With Heritage

Cpl. Heather Golden, 12.03.2009

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, meets with five Navajo code talkers and their family members at the Pentagon, Aug. 10, 2007. All five served as U.S. Marines in World War II and helped develop a communications code based on their native language.


Six Marines are credited with saving the lives of countless comrades and securing an American victory during the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. These six, part of 29 original Navajo code talkers, decoded more than 800 coded messages during the first 48 hours of the battle.

The inspiration

Early in 1942, Philip Johnson, the child of missionaries on a Navajo reservation, a World War I veteran and a fluent speaker of Navajo, met with Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, to pitch the idea of developing an unbreakable code using the Navajo language for use during World War II, according to a report on the subject, available on the Central Intelligence Agency's Web site.

Johnson pointed out the language, which is unwritten and contains variations in syntax, dialect and tonal qualities, would be indecipherable to someone who didn't know the language.

Johnson also showed Vogel it was possible to send and decode a coded message in about 20 seconds, whereas the then current method of sending and decoding took about 30 minutes. Vogel went for it.

The first steps

The 29 Navajos recruited as the initial code talkers arrived at Camp Elliot, located near San Diego, after recruit training to put together a new code. The code was made more complex with the inclusion of a word substitution system, according to the Web site.

"For us, everything is memory. It's part of our heritage," said Carl Gorman, one of the original 29 code talkers, when asked why Navajos were able to memorize the code as quickly as they did, as stated in Marine Administrative Message 0634/09, which recognizes November as National Native American Heritage Month. "We have no written language. Our songs, our prayers, our stories - they're all handed down from grandfather to children and we listen, we hear, we learn to remember everything."

The code

Once each line of code was translated into English, the Marines pieced together the whole message using only the first letter of each of the translated words. To spell "Army," a code talker might send "wol-la-chee (ant) gah (rabbit) na-as-tso-si (mouse) tsah-as-zih (yucca)," according to the Navajo code talker's dictionary, available on www.history.navy.mil.

Each letter had several words associated with it. "A" was represented by "wol-la-chee (ant)," "be-la-sana (apple)" and "tse-nill (axe)." There was also a specialized list of words to represent common military terms, as listed in the dictionary. For example, the code word for "battleship" is "lo-tso," literally translated as whale.

The dictionary, which originally contained 211 words, included 411 by the war end, according to the CIA Web site.

The impact

At first, some military leaders were skeptical about the new system. According to the CIA's report, the code talkers were tested before being trusted with combat related messages. They proved themselves by sending, receiving and decoding the messages in record time and without error.

"Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima," said then Maj. Howard Connor, the signal officer for 5th Marine Division at the Battle of Iwo Jima, according to www.navajo.org. Navajo code talkers were a key component of many of the major battles in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Peleliu.

The recognition

The world wouldn't know the part Navajo code talkers played until 1968, when the code was declassified. In 1982, former President Ronald Reagan dubbed Aug. 14 "Navajo Code Talkers Day."

Their story and the contributions of Native Americans across the nation are also remembered during each National Native American Heritage Month.

"This month, we celebrate the ancestry and time honored traditions of American Indians and Alaska Natives in North America. They have guided our land stewardship policies, added immeasurably to our cultural heritage and demonstrated courage in the face of adversity," said President Barack Obama in a proclamation officially naming this month as National Native American Heritage Month 2009.

The legacy upheld

Today, there are 2,409 Native Americans serving as active duty Marines and 1,508 Native Americans serving in the Marine Corps Reserve, according to Headquarters Marine Corps. So far, 5,509 active duty and reserve Native American Marines have served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

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