Skip to Main Content

Navajo Code Talkers: Whispers in the Wind

Overview: Navajo Code Talkers

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.


Exhibit Photos

Whispers in the Wind

Whispers in the Wind

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. 

Books & Ebooks @ MiraCosta Library

Navajo Weapon: The Navajo Code Talkers book cover
Secrets of Navajo Code Talkers book cover
Navajo Code Talkers: Top Secret Messengers of World War II book cover
Under the Eagle: Samuel Holiday, Navajo Code Talker Book cover
Unsung Heroes of World War II: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers book cover
Navajo Code Talkers book cover
The Sioux Code Talkers of World War II book cover
The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II book cover
Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces book cover
Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American veterans of the Vietnam War book cover

Films @ MiraCosta Library

Navajo Code Talkers

Details the role of a select group of Navajo Marines who developed a code based on their native language that provided a means for secure communications among American forces in the Pacific during World War II.

Navajo Warriors: The Great Secret

The Warrior Tradition

The Warrior Tradition

The film tells the astonishing, heartbreaking, inspiring, and largely-untold story of Native Americans in the United States military. It chronicles accounts of Native American warriors from their points of view.

Way of the Warrior film cover

Way of the Warrior

This documentary reveals how Native communities have traditionally viewed their warriors and why, during the 20th century, Native men and women signed up for military service at a rate three times higher than non-Indians.

Great Big Story, The Original Code Talkers

In the fall of 1918, the Allied military’s tactical movements were jeopardized by the German's superior espionage capabilities. That’s when two Native American soldiers speaking Choctaw came in.


The Great War: Native Americans in WWI

Most Native Americans were not recognized as American citizens, but high numbers volunteered for service. Regiments started sending messages in Native American languages because the Germans could not intercept them.

Native-American History: Native American Influence On The US cover

Native-American History: Native American Influence On The US

Discover the fascinating ways in which the U.S. was profoundly affected by the native cultures that were here thousands of years before the Europeans. Explore the ways in which our government, economy, agriculture, medicine, language & legal system are still influenced by Native American contributions

Crash Course: Civil Rights and the 1950s

John Green traces the 1950s Civil Rights movement, including important activists. He also highlights legal cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Mendez v. Westminster that served to desegregate U.S. schools.

Students and the Struggle for School Integration

Students and the Struggle for School Integration

The story of Barbara Johns and her classmates' fight for school integration resulting in the successful case - Brown v. Board of Education.