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.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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