Remembering the Navajo Code Talkers



Thomas H. Begay didn’t want to be a radio operator. In fact, up until he graduated from bootcamp, he thought he was going to become an aerial gunner for the Marine Corps during World War II.

“They sent me to a confidential area,” he said. “I walked in and there’s a whole bunch of Navajo.”

His previous MOS didn’t matter. Begay would attend code talking school.

The Navajo language had become the basis of a new code, and they were going to train to become code talkers. It was hard to see it then, but Begay and his fellow Navajo would help turn the tides of war and save countless lives.

An Unbreakable Code

The Code Talkers used native languages to send military messages before World War II. Choctaw, for example, was successfully used during World War I. But the Marine Corps needed an “unbreakable” code for its island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. Navajo, which was unwritten and known by few outside the tribe, seemed to fit the Corps’ requirements.

Twenty-nine Navajos were recruited to develop the code in 1942. They took their language and developed a “Type One Code” that assigned a Navajo word to each English letter. They also created special words for planes, ships and weapons.

But just because a person understood Navajo didn’t mean they could understand the code. While a person fluent in the language would hear a message that translated into a list of words that seemingly had no connection to each other, a code talker would hear a very clear message.

Here is an example:

Navajo Code: DIBEH, AH-NAH, A-SHIN, BE, AH-DEEL-TAHI, D-AH, NA-AS-TSO-SI, THAN-ZIE, TLO-CHIN

Translation: SHEEP, EYES, NOSE, DEER, BLOW UP, TEA, MOUSE, TURKEY, ONION

Deciphered Code: SEND DEMOLITION TEAM TO …

In addition to being unbreakable, the new code also reduced the amount of time it took to transmit and receive secret messages. Because all 17 pages of the Navajo code were memorized, there was no need to encrypt and decipher messages with the aid of coding machines. So, instead of taking several minutes to send and receive one message, Navajo code talkers could send several messages within seconds. This made the Navajo code talker an important part of any Marine unit.

 

Navajo Code Talker Peter MacDonald Sr.

On Iwo Jima

Begay did well in training and picked up the code quickly. A month after arriving at code talking school, he was given orders to his new unit and sent overseas.

“They told us we were going to Tokyo,” he said with a chuckle. “In February, we were told we’re supposed to land on Iwo Jima.”

On Feb. 19, 1945, at 0900 hours, Begay landed on the north side of the island with the 5th Marine Division. One code talker had already been killed during the first wave of attacks, and five more would be injured by the time the fighting stopped. In the face of machine gun fire and mortar rounds, Begay and his fellow Navajo Code Talkers continued to relay messages that were vital to the eventual victory on the island.

In all, nearly 800 coded messages were sent during the assault on Iwo Jima. There were zero mistakes.

“I was protected by the Marines,” Begay said. “They were protecting us; we were protecting them. I was lucky. But some didn’t get lucky – like those who got killed on the beach.”

Learn more about Thomas H. Begay here.

Author

Reynaldo Leal

– Reynaldo Leal is a public affairs officer for VA’s office of Digital Media Engagement and member for the VAntage Point’s staff. He is a proud Marine Corps Veteran who deployed to the Al Anbar Province with 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment in 2004 and 2006. He also took part in some of the heaviest fighting during Operation Phantom Fury in 2004.

Comments

  1. randall Cherry    

    Wow! Thanks for your service and ‘Semper Fi’ fellow Devil Dogs!!!

  2. wizkid    

    Thanks a lot for the great service you rendered, history will never forget about you, you have created something iconic already. rest on!

  3. Linda M Lueders    

    I am a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.. The Navajos have always been praised for their work during WWII, as if they were the only tribe who did this. That is not true and I have never understood why they are always singled out. The Choctaws and other tribes served the same function in WWI. They were the original Code Talkers. Those tribes should be acknowledged as the leaders in this field, not the Navajos.

    1. Shawn Saunders    

      Thank you Linda for sharing

  4. Linda M Lueders    

    I am a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and have grown up hearing stories about the glories of the Navajo Code talkers of WWII. But even as a teenager, I knew that members of the Choctaw Nation served as code talkers in WWI and that they never received the recognition and acclaim that the Navajos have. It has always offended me that the Navajos got all the praise for something that members of our tribe and others did first.

  5. Jessica Carroll-Baptista    

    Both of my grandfathers served in ww11. Real LHeureux was on the USS Hope as a physicians assistant. (Now deceased)
    George Carroll served with the army communication core. (Now deceased)
    Both of these men didn’t talk much about the war but, when they got together they would banter back an forth. They did talk about a few things like repairing a mans leg an not having any pain killers, just strong alcohol. Or the time they heard 24 hrs of shelling and rolling his jeep down a hill in Europe breaking his back.
    These men were strong men who did the job and came back home. I am happy to have cared for the two of them when they were ill and passed away.

    Now is the time to recognize all people, tribes, men and women who sacreficed for this great nation of freedom.

  6. Jerry Blackerby    

    It has only been the last 20-30 years that other tribes’ code talkers were beginning to be recognized. During these latter years, many code talkers have been recognized by our government, many were recognized posthumously. More people need to hear that there were many different tribes’ code talkers, including the original Choctaw code talkers during WWI.

  7. John Collins    

    Every combat uniti must move, shoot and communicate. It is vital that the communication be clear and secure. Units that fail to secure their communications are soon overrun Those that are able to keep their communication contents indecipherable are usually successful. The Japanese code was often broken and so they were unsuccessful in accomplishing their missions. One can’t be successful when the enemy knows your plans. The code talkers kept the enemy for having any clue of the content of their messages. They were a significant reason that the Japanese were often fooled as to the details of our plans and were therefore at the wrong place to counter them.

  8. CB STEPHENS    

    I do not dishonor their service with sadness or regret. With out them, all of the men and women who served we would be lost. So thank you.

  9. Ian Scott    

    What we need to understand is that the Navajo Code was not just a code. It was unbreakable amongst several reasons it was recognized. Sure we could give all coders recognition but Navajo Code Talkers receive their distinguished honors rightly so because it was unbreakable.

  10. Christina Shea    

    The Navajo Coding is very cool. I am impressed that it is so fast and accurate. I wish they had that when I was in the NAVY. I would have liked going to that Coding School. I like critical thinking skills. Way to go all of the Navajo Coders for a perfect job during Battle of Iwo Jima. That is something to be proud of!!!! Something to lay your hat on!!!

  11. Daniel    

    For the people so proud of their nationality ( proud AMERICAN Indian) and yet we have other nationalities ( African american) persons that only think of getting money from our government for something that happened sooo many years ago. I am sorry that they were brought here against their will but that does not mean that I MUST donate money for their sorrow. The American Indian, American Mexican, the American Oriental, American Irish don’t ask for money, they to were brought here against their will (slaves). Money can’t repair anything only bring sorrow to individuals.

  12. Cheryl Herman    

    My late father, Joseph N. Brace, was a Marine in the Fifth Amphibious Fleet during WWII. He never talked much about his experiences to us kids but did mention learning some of the Code Talkers language. I was about 5 or 6 and didn’t pay much attention. Later my mother said that he learned it from some Native Americans. I wish now that I had paid more attention and maybe written down what he knew. Interesting article.

  13. Wilfred Davis    

    All Code Talkers, regardless of Tribe, Nation or period of service, should be given High Recognition and Honors for their Heroic and Patriotic Service to their and our great Country.

    1. paul jansky    

      I agree with you. Our country has a bad habit of not given credit were credit is do.

  14. Jeffrey Dorfman    

    I agree that other code talkers from other tribal nations beside the Navajos for their part in the European Theatre of war get the recognition they deserve.

    1. Ruth    

      Thank you so much for sharing! I appreciate them to ….. The Navajo Code Talkers…. Could we have more stories from them?
      We need to hear this for our history and be reminded of those which have “Volunteered” during battle.

  15. Ross Mayo    

    Mohawks from my father’s tribe at Kahnawake (near Montreal) were also used during WWII speaking their Native language. The last, Mosie Oaks, recently past.

    My father, PFC Percy Joseph Mayo, USMC (now deceased) was approached on Iwo to join the Navajo code talkers by a ‘white’ Captain. When Dad said he could not, the Captain demanded to know why. Dad replied that he didn’t speak their tongue. The Captain responded that he (my father) was just stupid as all Indians spoke Indian.

    Many from our tribe and reservation have served in the US Armed Forces proudly. My youngest brother was in the first Gulf War. My older brother (also deceased) served in Vietnam in 1968. I was there in 1969 as a Hospital Corpsman.

    I agree with Mr. Primeaux that other Indigenous Nations should receive well deserved recognition for their service.

  16. Robert L. Primeaux    

    I’m an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and what the code talkers from other Tribal Nations. My Uncle was a code talker in Europe during WWII, he passed away a number of years ago and he told me when I came back from Vietnam in 1970 that he never got any recognition for what he did as code talker. So, I feel it is unfair that only the Navajos get the recognition for speaking their language. The Pentagon and the VA better give other Tribal Nations the honor they deserve. Thank you.
    Robert Primeaux
    100% Disabled Vietnam Veteran

    1. SSG Jerardo Gomez    

      What men of Earth. What Warriors. Even after their ancestors were inbound of extermination. They gave themselves way above honor and courage to our beloved Nation of all Race to see freedom for generations to come even after …
      Under one Nation.

  17. Chad Childers    

    Very interesting article about the codes used during World War II

    1. Richard G Kensinger    

      Thank you for your service in Nam. I served from 1969~1973 as an AF ER medic. Never got stationed there. And I feel very sad about what we pale faces did to the proud indigenous nations.
      My best to you.
      Rich

      1. Arnold Cabral    

        Rise and Shine Veterans no if buts please email your Senators or Representative contract Veterans Affairs Committee passed a new Benefit for Disabled Veterans who is 100 percent service connected a Dentist know how to put in G4 implants for free because their absolutely not one works at a Veterans Medical Center or a contract with the Veterans Affairs Administration and if a Disabled Veterans who is percent service connected a Dentist know how to put in G4 implants it would cause bad Health Care plus it cause bad gums disease also it can cause Cancer Semper Fi Don’t Surrender.

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