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.

A Nellie Bly Memorial Is Being Planned for New York City’s Roosevelt Island

The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
New York Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nellie Bly, the 19th-century journalist renowned for her six-part exposé on Blackwell’s Island’s asylum in New York City—which she infiltrated by feigning insanity—will soon be honored with a memorial on the island itself, now called Roosevelt Island.

Her 1887 investigation, Smithsonian.com reports, uncovered cruel conditions for the female "lunatic" patients, like freezing baths, violence, and solitary confinement in rooms overrun with vermin. Its publication resulted in a series of improvements including increased funding, translator assistance for immigrants, termination of abusive staff, and more. It also facilitated a national discussion about the stigma of mental illness, especially for women.

All we know about the monument so far is that it’ll be some kind of statue—maybe a traditional sculpture, something more modern or even digital—and construction will take place between March and May of next year with a budget of about $500,000. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) announced an open call for artists to submit their designs, and by August 2, it will choose five finalists who will then create conceptual proposals for the memorial.

The monument’s precise location is still up in the air, too. It could be around the Octagon, the only remaining portion of the asylum building that now forms the entrance to a luxury apartment complex on the northern half of the island, or in Lighthouse Park, a 3.78-acre space at the island’s northern tip.

Portrait of Nellie Bly
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Until the mid-20th century, Roosevelt Island, located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, was a rather undesirable place to visit. Along with the women’s asylum, it housed a prison, a charity hospital, a smallpox hospital, and a workhouse, The New York Times reports.

The city changed the name of the island (originally called Blackwell’s after the family who farmed there for generations) to Welfare Island in 1921. In 1935, it relocated the prison to Rikers Island (where it remains today). And in 1971, the city established a middle-income residential community on the island, renaming it Roosevelt Island, after Franklin Roosevelt.

Though Bly’s work in the island’s asylum may be her most famous, it was far from her only contribution to the worlds of journalism and industry. She also sailed around the world in 72 days, investigated baby trafficking, and ran her late husband’s manufacturing company. You can read more about her here.

“She’s one of our local heroes,” RIOC president Susan Rosenthal told The City about the choice to honor Bly. “The combination of who she was, the importance of investigative journalism and the fact that it happened here just made it perfect for the island.”

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

10 Fascinating Facts About Anne Boleyn

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anne Boleyn was one of England’s most controversial queens. In 1533, King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) and was in the process of breaking with the Catholic Church to wed the charming noblewoman. But their happiness was not to last: Just three years later, Anne was executed. It’s a compelling story, one that’s been dramatized in plays, novels, movies, and TV shows. But today, we’re setting the pop culture depictions aside to take a look at the real Anne Boleyn.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s formative years were spent in France and Belgium.

Born in the early 16th century (possibly in 1501 or 1507), Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat. As a child, she went abroad to study in Margaret of Austria’s court, located in present-day Belgium, and later continued her education as a member of Mary Tudor’s elegant household in Paris. By the time she returned to her native England in the early 1520s, Boleyn had mastered the French language—and she carried herself like a Parisian, too. “No one,” wrote one of Boleyn’s contemporaries, “would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but [instead] a native-born Frenchwoman."

  1. Anne Boleyn played the lute.

Even Boleyn’s harshest critics had to admit that she was a good dancer. She was also fond of music, and reportedly played the lute (a guitar-like instrument popular at Tudor gatherings) quite well. A songbook that bears her inscription can be found at London’s Royal College of Music. It’s unclear if Boleyn ever owned this book, but its selection of tunes is historically significant.

  1. Anne Boleyn almost married someone other than King Henry VIII.

In 1522, Thomas Boleyn and his cousin, Sir Piers Butler, were both trying to claim some Irish land holdings that had belonged to one of their mutual ancestors. To settle the dispute, Anne's uncle suggested marrying Anne to Butler’s son, James, so that the factions could be unified in the future. By the time Anne returned to England, the marriage was already in the works. King Henry VIII—whose mistress at that time was Anne's sister Mary—supported the match, but the marriage never went through. Anne also had a romantic relationship with one Henry Percy, a future Earl of Northumberland who wound up marrying the Lady Mary Talbot.

  1. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at her coronation.

King Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was annulled on May 23, 1533. He’d been courting Anne Boleyn for years; many of his love letters survive to this day. As the king’s infatuation grew, so did his desire for a healthy male heir—which Catherine never gave him. But Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve the royal marriage. So the Archbishop of Canterbury went ahead and annulled it. Henry VIII would soon be declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” severing its ties with the Vatican. Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. Her first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born a little over three months later.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s emblem was a white falcon.

The Boleyns took a white falcon from the traditional Butler family crest. For Anne’s coronation ceremony, poet Nicholas Udall wrote a ballad that likened the new queen to this elegant bird of prey. “Behold and see the Falcon White!” declared one verse. “How she beginneth her wings to spread, and for our comfort to take her flight” [PDF]. The new queen also used a white falcon badge as her personal emblem; at some point, a graffitied version of this was carved into the Tower of London.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s religious views are hard to pin down, but she appeared to sympathize with reformers.

At a time when Latin-language Bibles were the norm in Catholic Europe, Boleyn consistently supported the publication of English translations—a controversial notion at the time. As queen, she and her husband arranged for the release of Nicholas Bourbon, a French humanist whose criticisms of saint-worship and other theological matters had landed him in jail. Bourbon went to England, where he tutored Boleyn’s nephew (at her request).

  1. Anne Boleyn was the first of Henry VIII’s queens to get beheaded.

Like Catherine before her, Anne Boleyn failed to deliver Henry VIII’s long-sought male heir. In 1536, she found herself on trial, accused of high treason, adultery, and incest. (Rumors circulated that she was having an affair with her brother, George.) Though many historians dismiss these allegations, they sealed her fate nevertheless. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Henry VIII wed his third wife, Jane Seymour, that same month. Two spouses later, history repeated itself when the king had queen number five—Catherine Howard—decapitated in 1542.

  1. It has been claimed that Anne Boleyn had 11 fingers.

When you replace a popular monarch and spur the change of the religious fabric of an entire country, you're bound to make enemies. One of Boleyn’s detractors claimed that she had a “devilish spirit,” while another famously called her a “goggle-eyed whore.”

And then there’s Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who wrote an unflattering description of the former queen many years after she died. According to him, Boleyn had “a large wen [wart or cyst] under her chin,” a “projecting tooth under the upper lip” and “six fingers” on her right hand. But his claims are highly suspect. There’s no proof that Sander ever laid eye on Boleyn—plus, her contemporaries didn’t mention any of these physical traits in their own writings about the queen. At worst, she might have had a second nail on one finger—which is a far cry from saying she possessed an extra digit.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England for decades.

Coronated at age 25 on January 15, 1559, Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, promoted exploration, and foiled multiple assassination plots during her 44-year reign. She held the throne right up until her death in 1603.

  1. There’s only one surviving portrait of Anne Boleyn (that we know of).

When Henry VIII executed her, most Anne Boleyn likenesses were intentionally destroyed—and now, there's just one contemporary image of the queen known to exist: a lead disc—crafted in 1534—with Boleyn’s face etched on one side, which is held at the British Museum in London. It’s the only verified portrait of the former queen that was actually produced during her lifetime.

But there may be at least one more image of the queen out there: In 2015, facial recognition software was used to compare the image on the disc to a 16th-century painting currently housed at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. The picture’s subject, a young woman, has never been identified, but according to the program, the figure looks an awful lot like Boleyn’s portrait in that lead disc—though the researchers cautioned that their results were inconclusive due to insufficient data.

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