The Battle of Iwo Jima and the unbreakable Navajo Code



Peter MacDonald is one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers. The former chairman of the Navajo Nation recently sat down with VAntage Point staff to explain what made the “unbreakable” code so effective, and how it helped save lives and secure victory in the Pacific.

“Without Navajo, Marines would never have taken the island of Iwo Jima,” he said. “That’s how critical Navajo Code was to the war in the Pacific.”

The Unbreakable Code

Code Talkers used native languages to send military messages before World War II. Choctaw, for example, was used during World War I. The Marine Corps, however, 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.

Understanding Navajo didn’t mean a person 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.

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. Larry Gilson    

    Our elected officials could learn something from this article. Isnt it remarkable what can be accoumplished when we work together. Congress.

  2. Richard C. Engel    

    Most American citizens have no idea what the men and women of our great Nations military forces have been through during the battles fought during all wars.
    To say how proud I am for the sacrifices made by both the men and women who give us the freedom we have today.
    As an 8 year Navy veteran I was able to see the Island of Iwo Jima firsthand during the 1980’s while bringing the surviving WW11 Marines back to the Island for a Ceremonial event that the US and Japanese hiked up Mt. Sarabachi for a documentary.
    Never been able to find the documentary to watch it and don’t know if most Americans know it exists.
    Would be great if anyone knows of it.

  3. Aminah Garza-Foley    

    Such bravery, important history of America and the Navajo Nation…its now time to fund the building of the Navajo Code Talker Museum that Peter MacDonald continues to try to build on the Navajo reservation. All but a handful of these amazing code talkers are still alive. Those who have passed on will never have gotten to see the museum they too were helping Peter MacDonald fund raise over the years.

  4. Arthur Ross    

    Great article on the code talkers. Great in the Far East and in Europe. Our enemies had no defense. We however de-coded their messages. At one point in my Army Career I taught Race Relations classes, which included our native Americans and their service/success in our wars and signal intelligence and protecting our service men and women.

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