Cryptology—the business of secret codes—was a big deal in World War II. Each country in the conflict had their own way of encoding top-secret messages, and ways of deciphering everyone else’s. Cryptanalysts, spies, and code books were rampant. It seemed that no code was unbreakable.
Philip Johnston changed all of that.
Johnston, the son of a missionary and a World War I veteran, had been raised on a Navajo reservation where his father was ministering and had learned to speak the language. One day, soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Johnston read of how the U.S. Army was using Comanche Indians to transmit military messages. This gave him an idea—why not use the Navajo Indians in the same way? Not only is the Navajo language complex grammatically, with unique syntax and dialects, it is only spoken only on the Navajo lands of the Southwest U.S. and is taught verbally, so virtually no written record exists. It was the perfect code language.
Early in 1942, Johnston presented the idea to Major General Clayton B. Vogel of the U.S. Marines. Vogel immediately approved the project and sent for the recruitment of 200 Navajo soldiers. The first group of 29 soldiers created the Navajo code at Camp Pendelton, translating the phonetic alphabet into Navajo and giving certain military terms and weapons Navajo names (for instance, the Navajo word for “potato” meant “hand grenade”). The Navajo code was so unique and complex, even the native Navajo couldn’t understand it.
The code talkers were not allowed to write down a single letter when deciphering a message, so nothing could be traced or researched if a written message fell into the wrong hands. Despite that, their speed and skill was unparalleled. Code talkers could communicate complete messages in less than 20 seconds with 100% accuracy; it would have taken a code breaker half an hour to decipher the same message. The Navajo code talkers were used extensively throughout the Pacific theater; their work helped win countless battles and saved thousands of lives.
The greatest achievement of the Navajo code talkers was at the battle of Iwo Jima. During the first two days of battle, six code talkers worked around the clock, sending and receiving more than 800 crucial military messages, all without a single error. Major Howard Connor, the signal officer in charge of these six code talkers, said later, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
The Japanese military never did break the code of the Navajo.