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75 Years After VJ Day, The Legacy of the Navajo Code Talkers

During WWII, the Navajo code talkers created the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered, and helped win the war.

75 years ago, on August 15, 1945, the world celebrated Victory Over Japan, known as VJ Day. It marked the end of World War II, the bloodiest conflict the world has ever known.

While millions of people worldwide contributed to the Allied victory, enormous credit must go to a small group of men most of us have never heard of, the Navajo code talkers.

Philip Johnston was born in 1892 to a missionary father who moved his family to Arizona, hoping to convince the Navajo Indians living there on a reservation to allow him to minister to them. The Navajo allowed Johnston Sr. to build a mission near the town of Leupp, Arizona and young Philip played with Navajo children and learned to speak their language.

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Johnston earned an engineering degree from Northern Arizona University before serving in World War I. Following WWI, Johnston earned a graduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Southern California, and he went to work for the City of Los Angeles's water department.

Who were the Navajo code talkers? 

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, plunging the U.S. into World War II. Johnston came up with an idea: he recruited four Navajos who were working at the Los Angeles shipyards, and he approached the U.S. Marine Corps.

A demonstration was arranged with the Commanding Officer, Amphibious Force, Pacific Fleet, General Clayton Barney Vogel attending. Two of the Navajos were placed in one room, and two others were placed in a room at the opposite end of the building.

Using a field phone, one group coded English military expressions into Navajo, and the other group decoded them back into English. General Vogel was so impressed by the demonstration that he ordered that 30 Navajos be immediately recruited. After basic training, 29 Navajo men formed the all-Navajo Platoon, #382.

Navajo was an ideal language to be used as a code because it is comprised of complex sounds, syntax, and grammar, and at that time, it was still an unwritten language. The 29 recruits developed a complex code that included words such as ne-he-mah, "our mother" for America, lo-tso, "whale" for battleship, besh-lo "iron fish" for submarine, and ca-lo“ "shark" for destroyer.

The Navajo code talkers were able to translate three lines of English in 20 seconds. The men also developed an encrypted military letter code that could spell any English word. For example, wol-la-chee "ant" for the letter A, and na-hash-chid "badger" for the letter B.

Navajo code talkers
Navajo code talkers, Source: Department of the Interior

An estimated 44,000 Indian men and women served during World War II, when the total American Indian population was less than 350,000. The irony of all this was that Navajo children had been forbidden to speak their native language while attending the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, which they were forced to attend. One of the code talkers, Chester Nez, told The New York Times that the penalty for speaking Navajo was a beating, or having your mouth washed out with soap.

The Navajo children were also stripped of their Navajo names, with Nez being given the name "Chester" after U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. Given this treatment, when one of the code talkers, Albert Smith, was asked why the Navajo had volunteered to serve, he said, "... this conflict [WWII] involved Mother Earth being dominated by foreign countries. It was our responsibility to defend her."

The war in the Pacific

On September 18, 1942, the first group of Navajo code talkers arrived at the Battle of Guadalcanal where they quickly demonstrated their skill, speed, and accuracy. At the nearly month-long Battle of Iwo Jima, six Navajo code talkers worked around the clock during the first two days of the battle, sending and receiving over 800 messages. Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, said, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

Navajo code talkers in Saipan
Navajo code talkers on Saipan, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Besides the Navajo, during WWII, there were also code talkers from other Native American tribes. The Navajo and Hopi served in the Pacific in the war against Japan, and Comanches served in Europe in the war against the Germans and Italians.

The legacy of the code talkers

Navajo code talkers were used in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and to this day, the Navajo code is the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered.

Congressional Gold Medal
Congressional Gold Medal, Source U.S. Mint

Because the Navajo code talker program remained classified until 1968, the Navajo code talkers received no recognition. On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 code talkers, and Silver Medals to the approximately 300 additional code talkers who had served.

In July 2001, at a ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda, President George W. Bush presented gold medals to four of the five surviving original code talkers, and to the families of the 24 deceased members.

In 2019, four code talkers, Alfred K. Newman, Fleming Begaye Sr., John Pinto, and William Tully Brown, died. In January 2020, the last code talker, Joe Vandever Sr., died at age 96. The last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers, Chester Nez, died on June 4, 2014. In an obituary in The New York Times, Nez recounted the first message he had sent at Guadalcanal: "Anaai (Enemy) naatsosi (Japanese) beeldooh alhaa dildoni (machine gun) nishnaajigo nahdikadgo (on your right flank). Diiltaah (Destroy)."

A film about the code talkers, Windtalkers starring Nicolas Cage was released in 2002.

Test your code breaking ability

Below are code letters, their words in Navajo, the English translation of the Navajo word and the code you must translate. Let's see if you can crack the code!


MOASI   NE-AHS-JAH   LHA-CHA-EH   DZEH   GAH   DZEH   MOASI   DZEH   TKIN   A-KEH-DI-GLINI   DZEH   LHA-CHA-EH

LetterNavajo wordEnglish word
CMOASICat
DLHA-CHA-EHDOG
EDZEHElk
ITKINIce
ONE-AHS-JAHOwl
RGAHRabbit
VA-KEH-DI-GLINIVictor

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