An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

A page from the past: Decoding the war

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jette Carr
  • 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Pearl Harbor - the great catalyst that sent a nation, heart-broken and enraged, into a second world war, this time to end the fascist oppression caused by a charismatic dictator. It was during this fight that the U.S. Marine Corps developed a secret weapon, an unbreakable communication code made from the Navajo language in 1942.

Patrons of the Base Exchange at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., were able to glance through the tides of time during a brief visit with two Navajo Code Talkers, Jan. 30 through Feb. 1. New Mexico natives, 88-year-old Bill Toledo and 89-year-old Albert Smith, came on base to speak with Airmen and raise funds to enable their mission to preserve their history, legacy and language.

Toledo and Smith's path to joining the military and making their mark as the great communicators began after they learned of the tragedy in Hawaii.

"In December 1941, I was in school and we heard this message that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor," said Toledo. "I was about 17 years old when this happened. The Japanese broke the armed forces codes - so we were in bad shape."

The Marines began to search for a more secure form of communication. Philip Johnston, though not of Native American decent, had grown up on the Navajo Reservation and learned their language. He believed an unbreakable code could be developed from it and proposed this idea to the Marines.

A successful trial run was conducted and the idea was adopted. Thirty Navajo men were recruited to start the program, though only 29 showed up for boot camp. After graduation, the men were told to create a code, which they then used on the battlefield. This program rapidly expanded from the original 29 to nearly 550 Navajo Code Talkers by the end of the war.

"One day, this young Marine came to our school recruiting more Navajos," said Toledo. "He didn't tell us he was a code talker or how we would be used in the Marine Corps; it was kind of a secret, what was going on. He just talked about Marine life - that we'd be on liberty on the weekend, have a good time and all that."

When the men chose to enlist they were given a written examination and physical before being sent to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where the code school was primarily located, said Smith. It was there they memorized the Navajo code and practiced using it in communications with walkie-talkie radios.

"We would study Navajo and English, review and test for entire weeks on end so we could memorize the language completely," said Smith. "In the studies there was no room for failure. If you failed one test, you would be drawn-out and pushed into a regular Marine unit."

At the end of the two months, if they passed, the code talkers would be assigned to a Marine division.

"I was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division," said Toledo. "My first combat landing was Bougainville [in the British Solomon Islands]; my second combat landing was Guam and my third was Iwo Jima, the tiny island next to Japan."

It was in these locations he used Navajo code on the battlefield. The Marines had another code of communication, but it took much longer to decode. The speed with which the Navajo Code Talkers transmitted and decoded messages was credited for saving many lives.

Though they played an important part in the fight, Navajo Code Talkers gained no recognition and were unable to talk about what they had done until the program became declassified in 1968, 23 years after World War II ended.

In 2001, the Navajo Code Talkers were awarded with Congressional Medals of Honor.

"The code talker legacy helped open doors for the Navajo people in becoming citizens and voters, and was of particular significance at a time in history when the Navajo people faced segregation and minority social standing," said Victoria Jarvison, Dine Code Talker Corporation executive director. "I am very proud that our language was used as a big part of American history."

To learn more about the Navajo Code talkers, click here to visit their website.