“How The Navajos Got The Blanket” watercolor painting by Kayti Sweetland Rasmussen
The reservation is a private world, a world of beauty, of great silences, of contemplation. They are a people steeped in myth and mystery. In that beauty and silence one’s whole world and way of looking at the world would be changed.
Many miles from the peaceful reservation, World War II erupted in the Pacific with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Along with young men all over America, Navajo boys rushed to the nearest recruiting office. I know of one underage boy who walked 25 miles from his remote home to enlist, only to be turned down because of a lack of a birth certificate. (Many babies born at home in those days did not have birth certificates.) This boy returned to the recruiting office the next day, and through the use of a forged cetificate of some sort, suddenly became 18.
During the early months in the Pacific, Japanese intelligence experts broke every code the United States devised for combat messages. In any war situation, the rapid and accurate transmission of messages is essential. Japan was learning in advance, the time, place and direction the American attack forces would be deployed. Something had to be done to enable the American forces to communicate freely and secretly in the Pacific.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a group of twenty-nine volunteers left the tranquil canyons and mesas of their Navajo homeland. Little did they know of the crucial role they were about to play in the U.S. war effort.
These twenty-nine volunteers were the direct result of an idea presented to the Marines by Philip Johnston. His idea, born from his childhood days as a missionary’s son living on the Navajo Reservation, was ingenious.
The idea was to devise a code utilizing the complex unwritten language of the Navajo. Knowing the complicated syntax and intricate tonal qualities of the language, he convinced the Marines it would baffle the best of cryptographers. This language sounds different to the Anglo ear. Through the years I used to hear it, I called it “twisted tongue”; impossible for an Anglo to pronounce unless he had been raised around it. Johnston said the language could be used as the basis for a code to transmit vital information and battle plans.
With the help of the twenty-nine Navajo volunteers the task of creating code terms was underway. Words from their native tongue were selected to describe complex military equipment and operations. Instead of changing at a scheduled period of time, the code was changed constantly, often several times a day.
At full strength there were about 400 Navajos who were “Code Talkers”. These men were considered so valuable each had been assigned a personal body guard. The Navajo Code Talkers were so effective the Japanese were completely baffled and their master cryptographers never broke the code. In the words of Major Howard Conner, signal officer of the Fifth Marine Division at Iwo Jima, “during the irst 48 hours, while we were landing and consolidating our shore position s, I had six Navajo radio networks operating around the clock. In that period alone, they sent and received over 800 messages without an error”. Conner went on to say that “were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima”.