In 1942, Japanese translators and codebreakers were regularly intercepting U.S. military communications and sabotaging U.S. plans in the Pacific. Philip Johnston, a white man who was raised on the Navajo Reservation, convinced Major General Clayton Vogel, commanding general of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, that the Marines should recruit Navajos to transmit important military communications.
From the Naval Historical Center:
"In May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp. Then, at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, this first group created the Navajo code. They developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized during training.
...The developers of the original code assigned Navajo words to represent about 450 frequently used military terms that did not exist in the Navajo language. Several examples: 'besh- lo' (iron fish) meant 'submarine,' and 'dah-he- tih-hi' (hummingbird) meant 'fighter plane'...
Once a Navajo code talker completed his training, he was sent to a Marine unit deployed in the Pacific theater. The code talkers' primary job was to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios...Praise for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, 'Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.'"
For decades after the war, the contributions of the Navajo code talkers were not publicly acknowledged, because of the continued value of their language as a secure code. The code talkers were finally honored at the Pentagon in 1992, and the Navajo code talker exhibit is now a regular stop on the Pentagon tour.
Of the approximately 400 Navajos who trained as code talkers, only about 50 are still alive, most of them living in the Navajo Nation that includes part of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Today, for the first time, a group of 13 code talkers will take part in the Veterans Day parade in New York City.
AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca of Navajo code talker Keith Little, 85, at a book signing in Albuquerque, N.M.