The Marine Corps’ Navajo Code Talker Program was established in September 1942 as the result of a recommendation made the previous February by Mr. Philip Johnston to Major General Clayton B. Vogel, USMC, Commanding General, Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, whose headquarters was at Camp Elliott, California. Mr. Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajo tribe, was fluent in the language, having lived among the Navajos for 24 years. He believed that the use by the Marine Corps of Navajo as a code language in voice (radio and wire) transmission could guarantee communications security.
Mr. Johnston’s rationale for this belief was that Navajo is an unwritten language and completely unintelligible to anyone except another Navajo and that it is a rich, fluent language for which code words, in Navajo, could be devised for specialized military terms, such as the Navajo word for “turtle” to represent a tank. With the cooperation of four Navajos residing in the Los Angeles area, and another who was already on active naval service in San Diego, Mr. Johnston presented a demonstration of his theory to General Vogel and his staff at Camp Elliott on 28 February 1942. Marine staff officers composed simulated field combat messages which were handed to a Navajo, who then translated it into tribal dialect and transmitted it to another Navajo on the other end of the line. The second Indian then translated it back into perfect English and in the same form which had been provided originally. The demonstration proved entirely successful, and as a result, General Vogel recommended the recruitment into the Marine Corps of at least 200 Navajos for the code talker program. As a footnote, tests in the Pacific under combat conditions proved that classified messages could be translated into Navajo, transmitted, received, and translated back into English quicker than messages which were encoded, transmitted, and decoded employing conventional cryptographic facilities and techniques.
With the Commandant’s approval, recruitment began in May 1942. Each Navajo recruit underwent basic boot camp training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego before assignment to the Field Signal Battalion, Training Center at Camp Pendleton. It should be noted that, at the outset, the entire Navajo code talker project was highly classified and there is no indication that any message traffic in the Navajo language- - while undoubtedly intercepted - - was ever deciphered.
Initially, the course at Camp Pendleton consisted of training in basic communications procedures and equipment. At the same time, the 29 Navajos comprising the first group recruited devised Navajo words for military terms which were not part of their language. Alternate terms were provided in the code for letters frequently repeated in the English language. To compound the difficulty of the program, all code talkers had to memorize both the primary and alternate code terms, for while much of the basic material was printed for use in training, the utmost observance of security precautions curtailed the use of the printed material in a combat situation.
Once the code talkers completed training in the States, they were sent to the Pacific for assignment to the Marine combat divisions. In May 1943, in response to a request for a report on the subject, the various division commanders reported to the Commandant that excellent results had been achieved to date in the employment of Navajo code talkers in training and combat situations, and that they had performed in a highly commendable fashion. This high degree of praise concerning the Navajos’ performances prevailed throughout the war and came from commanders at all levels.
Although recruitment of the Navajos was comparatively slow at the time the program was first established, Marine recruiting teams were sent to the Navajo territory and a central recruitment office was set up at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. By August 1943, a total of 191 Navajos had joined the Marine Corps for this specific program. Estimates have placed the total number of Navajos in the code talker program variously between 37 and 420 individuals. It is known that many more Navajos volunteered to become code talkers than could be accepted; however, an undetermined number of other Navajos served as Marines, in the war, but not as code talkers.
The unique achievements of the Navajo Code Talkers constitute a proud chapter in the history of the United States Marine Corps. Their patriotism, resourcefulness, and courage have earned them the gratitude of all Americans.
USMC History Division