Aug. 14 is National Navajo Code Talkers Day. This observance recalls how approximately 400 members of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi and Navajo nations partnered with the CIA and the Marine Corps during WWII to develop a complex military code that helped the Allied Forces win.

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”

Devising an unbreakable code

Previously, the Choctaw language was used as a code for transmitting messages during WWI, helping launch a victorious attack against German forces. When the Marine Corps sought out another Native American language to use in the Pacific Theater in 1942, the language of the Navajo Nation was nominated and selected.

The military’s code-breaking technologies used at the time could translate three lines of text into English in about half an hour. Once the new system was developed, Navajo Code Talkers could process this same amount of text in just 20 seconds.

While the Navajo Code did use various Navajo words that translated directly into English, the level of complexity went further than that. Code Talkers created a harder-to-crack system based on word association in which different birds were used to describe planes and sea creatures were used to identify ships. For example, lo-tso (whale) was code for battleship while jay-sho (buzzard) was code for bomber plane. Similarly, so-na-kih (two star) signified Major General and toh-ta (between waters) referred to Great Britain.

The Code Talkers also created an encoded alphabet in which English letters could be referenced using up to three possible Navajo words. Wol-la-chee (ant), be-la-sana (apple) and tse-nill (axe) were all code for the letter A.

A total of 411 codewords were added to the Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary — and the code remained unbroken through the end of WWII.

Honoring the Code Talkers

The Marines selected a group of 29 Navajo recruits for the pilot program. Once the possibilities became clear, approximately 400 Code Talkers joined the Marines from the Navajo, Cherokee, Comanche, Choctaw and Hopi Nations. They were called the Navajo Code Talkers not because of their identity, but because of their mastery of the Navajo Code.

Code Talkers participated in every Marine operation in the Pacific Theater during WWII. Over phones and radios, they conveyed top-secret tactical information to help facilitate the rapid exchange of information while keeping intelligence safe from enemy ears and eyes. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, a team of six Navajo Code Talker Marines transmitted and translated more than 800 messages, helping secure that critical victory.

The Code Talkers’ efforts weren’t recognized until the operation’s declassification in 1968. In 1982, President Regan declared Aug. 14 as Navajo Code Talkers Day, bringing visibility to the important role of the Native American intelligence experts during WWII. The program’s original 29 participants were granted the Congressional Gold Medal in 2000 by President Clinton, and the four surviving Code Talkers received their medals from President Bush during a ceremony the following year.