The Navajo Code Talkers

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jason Hodson
  • 76th Space Control Squadron
November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to recognize and reflect on the contributions made by Native Americans.

The first state recognition of American Indians came in 1916, when the governor of New York declared the second Saturday in May as "American Indian Day." Finally in 1990, President George Bush Sr., approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 as "National American Indian Heritage Month." Every president since 1994 has signed a similar proclamation to designate November as "National American Indian/Native Alaskan Heritage Month."

As early as the American Revolution, American Indians have been involved in military operations. They have always proved to be an invaluable asset to the military ever since. One more prominent asset was the Navajo Code Talkers.

Using Choctaws as code talkers at the end of the World War I led the Army to experiment with the Comanche language. Inspired by these experiments, Commandant of the Marine Corps Thomas Holcomb and Maj. Gen. Clayton Vogel embarked in a project that would revolutionize military tactics. Moreover, they would lay the foundation for the creation of the only unbroken oral code in military history.

Interest was soon drawn to the Navajo language and its intricate complexities. The Marine Corps believed the military code could be constructed from Navajo and listed the four criteria to make it happen: 1) construct an alphabet; 2) select words that have accurate equivalent; 3) select short terms for rapid transmission; and 4) memorize all terms. In April 1942, the Marine Corps requested the recruitment of 30 Navajos. The prospective recruits were not initially told the reason for their recruitment. After two weeks of interviews, 29 Navajo recruits were told to report to Fort Wingate in New Mexico for induction. On May 4, 1942, the Navajo recruits, referred to as the "First 29th," were sworn in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The all-Navajo 382nd Platoon graduated June 27, 1942. Col. James L. Underhill, commanding officer of the Recruit Department, gave a heartfelt speech on graduation day.

"This is the first truly All-American platoon to pass through this recruit depot," he said. "It is, in fact, the first All-American platoon to enter the United States Marine Corps."

Navajo Code Talkers first saw action with the assault on Guadalcanal in August 1942. They played a major role in every major engagement in the Pacific Theater. They were strategically based in command centers, on board ships with the Navy, with field commanders and on the front lines. Many worked around the clock performing their duties.

As the war progressed, the code was improved and became more refined, making it faster and more accurate. The greatest changes involved adding terms, expanding it from 236 to 400. These terms were taught and learned orally using no codebook. At the end of the war, more than 400 Navajo code talkers served throughout the Pacific, while seven died because of wounds suffered in action.

Some information taken from the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute report. National American Indian Heritage Month: A Warrior's Tradition: Contributing to our Nation's Freedom. and Sally McClain: Navajo Weapon: The Navajo Code Talkers (Native American Culture)