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American Indian Heritage Month: Celebrating Navajo Code Talkers and their Contribution in World War II

Private First Class Preston Toledo and Private First Class Frank Toledo, cousins and Navajos attached to a Marine Artillery Regiment in the South Pacific, relay orders over a field radio in their native tongue July 7, 1943. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/National Archives No. 127-MN-57875)

Private First Class Preston Toledo and Private First Class Frank Toledo, cousins and Navajos attached to a Marine Artillery Regiment in the South Pacific, relay orders over a field radio in their native tongue July 7, 1943. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/National Archives No. 127-MN-57875)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- The protection and preservation of national security was one of the primary goals of the Office of War Information during World War II.

As the enemy became more adept at deciphering U.S. Military codes, there was increased pressure to find the ultimate code that even the most skilled code breaker could not crack. It was this desire for security that led the U.S. Marine Corps to enlist the help of Navajo Indians.

Philip Johnston was the son of a missionary to the Navajos and grew up on a Navajo reservation. He believed that the Navajo language, because it is unwritten, was a perfect choice to use as a code to transmit the sensitive details of military operations in the Pacific theater.

Johnston met with Maj. James E. Jones and Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, on Feb. 28, 1942, at Camp Elliot. With the assistance of four Navajos, Johnston demonstrated how the Navajo language could be used to transmit secure messages. Impressed by the proficiency by which the messages were relayed and transmitted, General Vogel wrote a letter to the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, recommending the recruitment of 200 Navajo code talkers.

On May 5, 1942, the first 29 code talkers arrived at San Diego for basic training. From there they moved to Camp Elliot, where along with communications personnel, they developed the first Navajo code consisting of 211 words. Many of the military terms had to be substituted using terms common in the Navajo vocabulary.
 
They also developed a code representing the 26 letters of the English alphabet, so that the code talkers could spell out a word if they did not have a Navajo equivalent for the term. Eventually, the code would expand to 411 words and the alphabet to 44 terms in order to ensure the strength of the code.

Official records including battle reports involving the Navajo code talkers are limited; most records only reference their service in Guam, Palau, Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Maj. Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division Signal Officer, praised the code talkers, citing, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

It is success stories on the battlefront, such as that reported at Iwo Jima, that show the invaluable contribution of the Navajo code talkers to the war effort. It is estimated that approximately 540 Navajos served as Marines during the War, of which- between 375 and 420 were code talkers.

Many of the former code talkers went unrecognized due to the ongoing classified nature of the program, until 1968 when it was finally declassified. New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman introduced the bill "Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act" in 2000. The act authorized the President of the United States to award a Congressional Gold Medal to each of the original 29 code talkers, as well as a Congressional Silver Medal to each individual who later qualified and served as a Navajo code talker.

To celebrate American-Indian Heritage Month and the Navajo code talkers, the AIHM committee offers a display of various tribal artifacts and a showing of the movie "Windtalkers" (rated R) at the Schilling Community Center Nov. 13 from noon to 2 p.m.