Fighting Words: The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II

Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

While names like Patton, Hitler, and Churchill occur frequently in discussions of World War II, relatively few people mention names like John Brown, Chester Nez, Lloyd Oliver, or Allen Dale June. Yet all of these men, and hundreds more, were key figures in bringing the Allied forces to victory. As members of the Navajo Nation, they were recruited for an audacious project, forming a network of communications operators who transmitted information through their unique and unwritten language. These "Code Talkers," as they came to be known, occupied the front lines of major battles in the Pacific, allowing the U.S. military to send important messages in near-total secrecy.

The Navajo Code Talkers toiled in relative obscurity, silenced by classified mandates and a tendency to keep their heroic efforts to themselves. They often worked under extreme duress and spectacular violence, never once wavering from their mission: Using their complex language to outsmart and outmaneuver their foes.

An Un-Crackable Code

The project got its start in the early 1940s with Philip Johnston, an American World War I veteran who grew up on a Navajo reservation, where his father was a missionary. After spending his childhood on the reservation, Johnston was familiar with the Navajo language, a complicated spoken tongue understood by fewer than about 28 people—mostly anthropologists and missionaries—outside of the Navajo Nation. He even served as an interpreter, at age 9, for Navajos meeting with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, in which the Navajos lobbied for better conditions for their people.

One day in 1942, Johnston was reading a newspaper article about an armored division in Louisiana looking to develop a code based on a Native American language. He thought that Navajo might be just the language they were looking for.

Johnston headed for a local naval office and got routed to the headquarters of the Eleventh Naval District in San Diego, California. There, he met Major James E. Jones, and explained his theory—that the Navajos communicated with incredible complexity, and it would be virtually impossible for messages in their language to be cracked.

Jones listened with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. Language from another Native American tribe, the Choctaw, had been used during World War I under a similar belief it would be difficult for the enemy to understand. It had been employed with great success near the end of the war, but in the years that followed, the Germans had gone on to pose as students and anthropologists in the United States in an attempt to learn Choctaw, as well as Cherokee and Comanche. It was possible they were now capable of breaching another indigenous tongue.

Then Johnston began speaking Navajo—and Jones was impressed. The complex language intrigued him enough to agree to more complete demonstration in two weeks, in which messages would be encoded and then decoded by members of the Navajo Nation. In the interim, Johnston wrote an impassioned letter explaining the language and why he felt it would be impenetrable. He sent a copy to Jones and Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, who also agreed to show up for the exercise.

Faster Than a Machine

Navajo Code Talkers and Marine Corps Corporal Henry Blake Junior and Private First Class George H. Kirk operate a radio in December 1943
Robert Sullivan, Flickr // Public Domain

Johnston contacted four Navajo men and brought them to Camp Elliott, just outside San Diego, on February 27, 1942, for the demonstration. The next day, Vogel gave the team six messages and 45 minutes to figure out a method for encryption. When he returned, the men were able to create a code in Navajo, relay it, decode it, and recite it back in English, all in a matter of minutes. Military encryption machines could take hours.

Jones's skepticism vanished. So did Vogel's, who wrote a letter recommending the Marine Corps recruit 200 Navajos for the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet. On May 5, 1942, 29 Navajos who had been gathered by Marine personnel at Fort Defiance, Shiprock, and Fort Wingate arrived in San Diego for basic training—and to begin arranging a code that would prove un-crackable for even the most determined Axis intelligence officers. Despite being in his forties, Johnston enlisted later that year to help train the recruits.

Some of the Navajo men who worked on the code volunteered for service, while others were drafted. Many in the tribe displayed a fierce patriotism and willingness to fight, even amid ongoing tensions with the U.S. government. According to The Code Book by Simon Singh, a number of Navajo even lied about their age (some were as young as 15) to join, or gorged on bananas and water to make minimum weight requirements. Most were enthusiastic about fighting the Axis powers, even though their mission took them by surprise. "All I thought when I went in [was that] the Marine Corps was going to give me a belt of ammunition, and a rifle, a steel helmet, and a uniform," Chester Nez, one of the Navajo recruited, said in 2004. "Go and shoot some of those Japanese. That's what I thought. But later on they told us differently … [a different] purpose of why they got us in."

Portions of the code were relatively straightforward. The Navajo used words for birds to describe specific aircraft: A fighter plane was da-he-tih-hi, the Navajo word for "hummingbird." A bomber plane was jay-sho, or "buzzard." A patrol plane was ga-gih, or "crow."

For military terms that had no obvious correlation, the team used a words-for-letters system, with one or more words assigned to each letter of the English alphabet. The letter A was represented by wol-la-chee ("ant"), be-la-sana ("apple"), or tse-nill ("axe"). The variety offered additional protection against a breach in security. Communicating the name of the island of Tarawa, for example, would be turkey-ant-rabbit-ant-weasel-ant, or than-zie, wol-la-chee, gah, wol-la-chee, gloe-ih, wol-la-chee.

The vocabulary began with 211 words, but eventually grew to 411. For security purposes, the code could not be written down and carried. The men would have to memorize the words that represented the English letters and military terms. They would need to know that the hard-shelled tortoise, or chay-da-gahi, meant another kind of hard shell: a tank. Because their culture was preserved via oral history, memorization came easily to most.

Perfection Under Pressure

A sculpture of a Navajo Code Talker stands at the Navajo Code Talkers Memorial in Window Rock, Arizona
Ron Cogswell, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In total, between 375 and 420 Navajos were recruited for secure transmission work. The Navajo radio operators—who later came to be known as Code Talkers—were dispatched to virtually every major Marine presence in the Pacific theater. They worked in pairs: One remained behind the lines and one transmitted via radio from the heat of battle, sometimes working while under enemy fire or during shocking displays of wartime violence. In author Doris Paul's book The Navajo Code Talkers, one Code Talker recalled: "If you so much as held up your head up six inches, you were gone, the fire was so intense." He also related an enemy attack that left a buddy in the trench dead, his blood covering the Navajo's hand as he radioed in for help.

Despite the extremely stressful conditions, the messages were delivered flawlessly. The Navajo Code Talkers participated in operations in Guam, Palau, and Okinawa; at Iwo Jima, six Code Talkers worked around the clock, delivering between 600 and 800 messages with no errors. The signal officer at Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, later remarked that the Marines would not have succeeded there if it weren't for the Navajo.

Despite its successes, the program was not without flaws. The Marine Corps likely could have used more Code Talkers, yet Navajos enlisting through the Selective Service rarely went to the Marines. Plus, not all stations using the code could communicate with one another: If one had a Navajo operator and one did not, there was no one to decipher messages. And on a few occasions, American soldiers captured Navajo, believing them to be Japanese. Many squads took to escorting Navajo Code Talkers with personal bodyguards to avoid such incidents.

After the war's end, it would be nearly 25 years before the Code Talkers' mission was declassified and the Navajos' efforts would become part of the historical record. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan awarded members of the group with a Certificate of Recognition, and acknowledged their contribution with a Navajo Code Talkers Day celebrated on August 14 every year. In 2000, Bill Clinton signed a law awarding the Code Talkers the Congressional Gold Medal. The following year, George Bush presented the medal to four of the surviving members: John Brown, Chester Nez, Lloyd Oliver, and Allen Dale June. Traditionally silent about their contributions, the Navajos were able to take their rightful place among the giants of the war, speaking the words that helped end one of the greatest conflicts in modern history. Their code was never breached.

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images
EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
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Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
ChristinLola/iStock via Getty Images

There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
FromtheWintergarden/iStock via Getty Images

The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
James Mahan/iStock via Getty Images

These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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