From 1942 until the end of World War II, roughly 400 Navajo young men served as encryption specialists. Recruited from their reservations in parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, the men developed a code based on the unwritten Navajo language, which proved unbreakable. This was not the first time the United States military used Native American languages as an encryption method. In World War I, they successfully used other Native American languages to transmit messages. After World War I, Indigenous languages drew the attention of code experts due to their unwritten nature and the limited number of people who spoke them. The Navajo Code Talker program drew inspiration from these early attempts to use Native Americans as encryption specialists. The Navajo Code Talkers participated in every battle the Marines fought in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945 and played a critical role in military communication. Yet, they only received public recognition years later, in 1968, when the U.S. government finally declassified the program’s details.
The early phases of the U.S. Marine Corps encryption techniques during the Pacific campaign were remarkably unsuccessful. The Japanese military were expert code breakers able to quickly decipher the Allies' communications and transmit fake messages back to the sender. This inhibited the Marines' secure communications by radio and telephone, compromising their success in planning and fighting battles. The Navajo Code Talkers designed an altered version of their complex unwritten language by replacing military terms with Navajo words. For instance, they used Navajo words to represent English letters. They also used the names of birds to indicate aircraft, and their term for an “ant” replaced the word “tank.” In all, they created over 400 symbolic Navajo names to represent military words and expressions. When there were no words in the Navajo language, code talkers would spell out the terms using a version of their phonetic alphabet. Their system proved effective, as they encoded, dispatched, and decoded messages faster than the Marine’s encryption machines. The Navajo Code Talkers streamlined battlefield communications and espionage while neutralizing the Japanese’s ability to break encrypted American messages.
Some of the toughest and most significant battles occurred in the western Pacific Ocean, where the Allies fought Japan for regional control. Not only were the Japanese a powerful, relentless adversary, but the jungle terrain was dense and challenging to navigate. To achieve dominance over the Japanese, the Allies needed secure telephone and radio communications which were crucial to well planned battles. However, the Japanese and their code-cracking prowess meant they could quickly decipher every message the Allies sent. This all changed once the Navajo Code Talkers' joined the Marines. Their swift efficiency allowed American forces to adapt to Japanese defenses. Of particular note are their contributions to the Marine Corps’ success in Guam and Pelieu in 1944. Additionally, six Navajo Code Talkers successfully transmitted more than 800 messages during the month long battle for Iwo Jima. The Navajo Code Talkers effectively neutralized Japan’s ability to break U.S. military code, thereby contributing to the Allied victory. In fact, the Navajo's code was so successful that it was used in the Korean and Vietnam wars with equal success.
Once the war ended, the Navajo Code Talkers were ordered to keep their military activity a secret. It wasn’t until 1968, when the U.S. military declassified their service, that the general public was aware of the enormous impact the Navajo Code Talkers had on World War II's outcome. However, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan celebrated the Navajo Code Talkers for their honorable service, bravery, resourcefulness, and extraordinary achievements. In 1992, the Defense Department created a permanent display of photographs, equipment, and the original code to inform visitors about the extraordinary contributions the Navajo Code Talkers made during World War II. Years later, in December 2000, the "Honoring the Code Talkers Act” was signed into law authorizing the President of the United States to award a gold medal to the original twenty-nine Navajo code talkers and a silver medal to each man who later qualified as a code talker. Moreover, the Navajo Code Talkers have been immortalized in books and movies, highlighting their wartime efforts and whispers in the wind.