Keith Hill passed away yesterday at the age of 87. He was president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association and Congressional Silver Medal recipient. At 17, he joined the Navajo Code Talkers, a group of men who used their Native American language to communicate and coordinate the movements of Marines in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Hill started with the U .S. Marine Corps in December of 1943, and he fought at the Marshall Islands, Sai Pan, and Iwo Jima. Over 400 over Navajo Code Talkers also served.
Encryption could be a complicated and time-consuming task. A quicker and more secure means was needed.
Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary, had presented the idea of Navajo speakers to the Marines. He was a World War I vet who knew that the military was looking for a quick and secure way to send messages. Using speakers of a language that few outsiders ever heard—and that fewer than 30 outsiders spoke—seemed like a plausible solution.
Why Navajos? There were very, very few speakers of the Navajo language outside the tribe, with exception of a limited number of scholars and missionaries (Johnston estimated 28 people), so it was unlikely anyone else would recognize the langauge and be able to translate it. Even among other Indian tribals, the language was considered different.
But after a demonstration on February 28, 1942, General Vogel wrote to the U.S. Marine Corps commandant and recommended the initial recruitment of 200 Navajos for the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet.
The initial recruits came up with the code, creating a vocabulary for military terms. For instance, the Navajo did not have a word for “observation plane,” so the code talkers chose “me-as-jah,” the Navajo word for “owl.”
They created a system that signified the 26 letters of the English alphabet. For instance, the letter A was “wol-la-chee,” which means “ant” in Navajo. Eventually, they added an additional layer of encryption: the 26 letters had 44 corresponding terms to expand the words used for these letters—E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L, and U.
Capt. Ralph J. Sturkey, in his Iwo Jima battle report, called the Navajo code the “the simplest, fastest, and most reliable means” available to transmit secret orders by radio and telephone circuits exposed to enemy wire-tapping.
The Japanese were never able to break their code.
This blog post was based on the article “Semper Fidelis, Code Talkers” written by Adam Jevec. It appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Prologue.