November 11 is Veterans Day. Visit the National Archives website for more information on related events and resources. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an expert archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Navajo code talkers were pivotal U.S. Marines in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and their achievements have begun to receive recognition. Their origins begin with Philip Johnston, a civil engineer who once lived on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. He pitched the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps an idea that the Navajo language could be used to encrypt and transmit valuable intelligence throughout the Pacific Theater.
Precedence existed for such a project; during World War I the United States enlisted the aid of several Choctaw recruits who spoke their native language to relay radio messages on the Western Front in France. The complexity of Navajo grammar combined with its nonwritten feature made it ideal for transmitting encoded messages. The only drawback was that, because of cultural suppression and anglicization, there were relatively few native speakers of the Navajo language remaining.
By spring 1942, as the United States mobilized for war in the Pacific Theater, Marine Corps Gen. Clayton Vogel recommended that Navajo Indians attend signals combat training. The military made a concerted effort to divert as many Native Americans with special language skills into these courses.
The first batch of 29 recruits arrived at Camp Pendleton in May 1942. This group paved the way for future code talkers as they developed the system for encoding messages. For weeks they learned how to operate radio equipment, memorize coded messages, survey terrain for enemy positions, and learn how to transmit and receive messages under fire. Each recruit was tested on how many messages they could translate during a firefight. If a recruit could successfully decode a three-line message in under 20 seconds, they were ready for the front.
As any cryptologist will tell you, having a key to unlock encoded messages is the vital component of any secure communication. The uniqueness of the Navajo language was its oral tradition. There also exists a vast array of dialects and accents within each language tree, creating overlapping layers of complexity. The code talkers used the spelling alphabet system, designating certain words with letters, and improvising when a term didn’t exist in the Navajo language. Words like “airplane,” “torpedo,” and “submarine” had no Navajo counterpart and so the code talkers improvised. A “shark” was a destroyer vessel; “silver oak” was a lieutenant colonel; “buzzard” was a bomber plane; and “iron fish” was a submarine.
Code books were written to train each group of recruits, but the books were not taken into the theater. Enemy codebreakers could potentially decipher the code, but fortunately for the code talkers, small nuances and changes in the dialect and tonal inflection could result in an entirely different translated message. Nearly 400 Navajo Marines served as code talkers throughout the Pacific.
After they reported to their units, code talkers were assigned in pairs. During battle, one operated the radio while the second relayed and received messages in Navajo and then translated them. Many code talkers also performed duties as runners. Their work was especially dangerous in the Pacific as the Japanese deliberately targeted officers, medics, radiomen, and messengers. Their survival rate was considerably lower when compared to a Marine Corps rifleman, machine gunner, or mortarman.
The Navajo code talkers were highly commended for their meritorious service, communications skills, and bravery under fire. They served with distinction in Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Maj. Howard Connor of the 5th Marine Division credits the Navajo code talkers for being the reason behind the successful invasion of the island. Had they not been able to transmit and receive nearly 1,000 messages from the landings, the outcome could have been far more deadly.
Despite being an indispensable part of American forces, they faced racial prejudices. A handful of recorded instances show that they were even mistaken for enemy Japanese soldiers.
As with any military practice involving secrecy, the Navajo code talkers were prevented from sharing details about their military service. The code talker program was classified and remained so until 1968. Its declassification came at the height of the Vietnam War, and with anti-war sentiment and public protests demanding more civil rights for Native American tribes, recognition for the code talkers was unfortunately sidelined.
By the 1980s, reports began entering mainstream media as books and documentary interviews with surviving code talkers telling their stories were made available. In 2001 Congress passed H.R. 4527, Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act, which bestowed its highest honor on each of the 29 first recruits:; the Congressional Gold Medal. On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented medals to the survivors, honoring them for their achievements and contributions to the U.S. war effort.
A look at an individual code talker, Adolph Nagurski, can tell a wider story. After the first 29 recruits, more Navajos entered the Marine Corps, and their language skills were tested to see if they could perform as code talkers. Adolph Nagurski qualified after his induction in December 1943 in Flagstaff, Arizona. He completed basic training in the following spring, and in May 1944 he attended the Field Signal School at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. In four weeks, he and 14 others learned every skill needed for a radio operator and memorized the Navajo code.
In December 1944, Nagurski left California for Guam, then Saipan, and Guadalcanal. On April 1, 1945, he took part in the landings on Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division. He fought on Okinawa for the full duration of the battle—over two months of some of the worst fighting in the entire Pacific war. Thousands of Marines, Army, and enemy troops were killed every week along with civilian casualties. When the Japanese finally surrendered in September 1945, Nagurski sailed for China, where he witnessed Japanese forces formally surrender at Tsingtao the following October. There he fulfilled occupation duties with the 6th Marine Division for six months until he finally returned to the United States in May 1946.
Nagurski passed away in 2013, but he never received the full honors for his code talker service. A stipulation in the legislation that granted the Congressional Gold Medal to the first group of code talkers was that the Congressional Silver Medal was granted to every Navajo code talker who served after the initial recruits. Nagurski was unable to participate in the ceremony for the silver medal recipients and passed away before receiving it.
The situation came to the attention of Senator Martin Heinrich in 2018 when the Nagurski family petitioned to have this oversight resolved. In April 2018, Cpl. Adolph Nagurski was posthumously honored with the Congressional Silver Medal, which was accepted by his surviving son, Benjamin. In a speech at the award ceremony, Senator Heinrich described the harsh conditions and battlefield horrors Nagurski and the other code talkers endured.
With their indispensable role as transmitters of important messages and intelligence, the Navajo code talkers made their mark in history. The Navajo code remains unbroken, and its secrecy lives now in the memories of those who ran the Pacific gauntlet into victory.
November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit National Archives News for more information about our resources and holdings. To learn more about Native American code talkers, visit the National Archives Native American Heritage website.