By Jeff Olson
Two weeks ago, America observed the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day, commemorating the end of World War II in Europe. After Adolph Hitler committed suicide in April 1945, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz briefly succeeded him as Germany’s leader. Doenitz arranged for Germany’s surrender, and on May 7 chief of staff of the German armed forces Colonel General Alfred Jodl signed a statement of unconditional surrender at General Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France. Though America celebrated exuberantly, the war in the southwest Pacific continued and victory there was still months away.
Early on in the war, the U.S. military faced a critical communications problem in the Pacific. The Japanese were succeeding in intercepting and deciphering Allied messages almost as fast as new ones could be invented, resulting in the anticipation of U.S. attacks and at a large loss of American lives. It was such a problem that one war analyst commented, “Military communications were made available to the enemy like sand sifting through a sieve.” What was the solution? A code the enemy couldn’t crack.
Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran and a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles, grew up the son of Protestant missionaries serving on a Navajo reservation where he learned to speaking their native tongue. Having recently read a newspaper story about an armored division in Louisiana that was attempting to come up with a way to code military communications using Native American personnel, Johnston was soon struck with the idea of using the Navajo’s language as a basis for such a code. He thought that the complexity of Navajo linguistics would make it an ideal choice to be used in code due to the lack of documentation made available for learning to speak the language and ability for the same words to mean multiple things based on sound.
He subsequently approached the military in February 1942 and the theory was tested with four Navajos. Convinced of the potential for developing a secure code, the Marines initially recruited 29 Navajos in May. They would officially be designated the 382nd Platoon, U.S. Marine Corps, at basic training. Afterward, they were transferred to Camp Pendleton at Oceanside, CA. Three more Navajos were subsequently added, and the 32 of them were tasked with devising a new Marine Corps military code which, when transmitted in their own language, could completely confuse their Japanese enemies. The Navajo code would prove to be the most foolproof in the history of warfare, and the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered.
Through this code, more than 400 Navajo code talkers over the next 3 years communicated thousands of encrypted radio messages between command posts and front lines. They served with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific and with Marine Raider Battalions and parachute units as well. They participated in major Marine campaigns on the Solomons, the Marianas, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima. These dependable, dedicated and courageous Navajo Americans saved countless lives during the war and helped bring it to a more expedient and victorious end for the Allies. Major Howard Conner, 5th Marine Division signal officer, later stated “….Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
On June 4, 2014 Chester Nez, the last surviving member of the initial 29 original Navajo code talkers recruited, died at his home in Albuquerque, NM at the age of 93. The U.S. Marines Corps released this statement: “We mourn his passing but honor and celebrate the indomitable spirit and dedication of those Marines who became known as the Navajo code talkers.”