During World War II , the U.S. military faced a deadly communications problem in the Pacific: the Japanese often succeeded in intercepting and deciphering Allied messages. It was getting harder and harder to invent codes the enemy couldn’t crack.
The solution came from the Navajo “code talkers,” men from the Navajo nation who put their native language to work for the Marines. In May 1942, twenty-nine Navajo recruits gathered in San Diego and soon began devising a code that proved to be one of the most foolproof in the history of warfare.
How did the ingenious code work?
The code talkers started by creating strings of seemingly unrelated Navajo words. Once translated into English, the first letter of each word was used to spell out a message. More than one Navajo word could be used to stand for each English letter, making the code even more confusing to the Japanese. For example, for the letter a, code talkers could use the words wol-la-chee (ant), be-la-sana, (apple), or tse-nill (ax). One way to send the word navy was tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di-glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca). Sometimes the code talkers used Navajo words to stand for military terms. The Navajo word for hummingbird stood for a fighter plane. The word for shark meant a destroyer.
More than 400 Navajos served as U.S. Marine code talkers in the Pacific, sending radio messages between command posts and front lines. The Japanese never broke the code. Without doubt, these brave men saved countless lives and helped speed the Allied victory. At the battle of Iwo Jima alone, six code talkers sent and received more than 800 messages in the first two days of fighting, all without error. One signal officer later said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”