The Code Talkers, Part I

EGA 1940-001Young Philip Johnston loved the Navajo culture; it was the environment within which he grew up as a child of missionary parents. By age five, Philip knew the Navajo language well enough to serve as a translator, and by age nine, when most boys that age were riding their bicycles and trading baseball cards, he had served as the official translator of a Navajo delegation sent to the nation’s capital to negotiate expanded rights for the Navajo Indians.

In time, however, Philip Johnston would grow into manhood and when his country entered World War I, he would leave the Southwest to enlist and serve in the war to end all wars. After the war, Philip earned a degree in civil engineering at the University of Southern California and when war came once more to America’s shores on 7 December 1941, Johnston was hard at work as an engineer for the city of Los Angeles.

Communications within the Armed Forces has always been a complex issue, but after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, as American forces began to gather themselves for a major push into the Pacific Ocean area, commanders were suddenly confronted with an even more complex issue. Japanese cryptographers were proving themselves amazingly adept at breaking top-secret military codes almost as rapidly as communications specialists devised newer, more complicated procedures. Many of the Japanese code breakers had been educated in the United States where they had learned to speak English and had become familiar with American colloquialisms, including slang terms and profanity. In effect, the Japanese became aware of American battle plans almost as soon as senior commanders issued warning orders to subordinate commands. There appeared no workable solution to a problem that was costing American lives.

On the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Philip Johnston was 49 years old —well beyond the age of military service. His experience in World War I, however, prompted him to approach the Marines with a plan to help his country win its war against the Japanese. Philip Johnston knew that the Navajo language had no alphabet or written record, and he knew it was nearly impossible to learn this language if you were not immersed in it from a young age. This knowledge prompted Johnston to approach Marine Corps authorities in San Diego. He was sure that in adopting the Navajo language for communications, the American forces could deny valuable information to the Japanese.

At first, the Marine hierarchy had serious doubts about Johnston’s ideas. The use of American Indians in communicating over radio and telegraph had been a successful strategy during World War I, but senior Marine officers also knew that following the war, Germans had visited the United States with a keen interest in the Choctaw and Comanche languages. Most military planners assumed that the Germans would share these insights with the Third Reich. Philip Johnston persisted, however. He knew the Navajo language; he knew it was unique among the Native American nations.

Johnston’s persistence paid off when the Marine Corps finally agreed to a series of demonstrations at Camp Elliott, just outside San Diego, California. At the conclusion of the trial run, everyone agreed that the results had been quite impressive. The Navajo clearly demonstrated that a Navajo Indian could take messages from a variety of sources in English, translate them and transmit them in Navajo, and then convert them back into English on the receiving end. Marines were so impressed with these demonstrations that they lobbied for the recruitment and training of 200 Navajo Indians for service as Marine Corps Code Talkers. Initially, the Marine Corps approved up to 30 men for training; by the end of the war, more than 400 Navajo would work in the program.

As with any recruit, the Navajo would first have to demonstrate that he had what it takes to serve successfully as a United States Marine. He would learn to be a combat Marine. He would learn to deal with harsh environments, and in this particular aspect, the Navajo were “naturals.” According to one Navajo Code Talker, their greatest fear was the amphibious landing —but once ashore, Navajo quickly assimilated the natural setting.

The Marine Corps did impose certain restrictions on Navajo recruitment, however: a code talker had to have completed a tenth-grade education; they had to speak passable English; and they had to agree to keep their occupations secret, even from their families. The reason for this was that the Navajo Marine was in constant danger from a myriad of sources —including other Marines. In order to keep Caucasian Marines from shooting them, because they looked “Asian,” it was necessary to assign Caucasian Marines to guard them. Senior Marine Corps Signals Intelligence officers warned the Code Talkers, “We will not allow you to become prisoners of the Japanese.”

SSGT Philip Johnston USMCCode Talkers proved highly successful during the campaign for Guadalcanal. Commanding the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal was Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, who was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and subsequently appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps. With first hand knowledge of the worth of the Code Talkers, Vandegrift ordered the expansion of the program. By August 1943, 191 Navajo were serving as Marine Corps Code Talkers [1]. Helping to train these code talkers in California was Staff Sergeant Philip Johnston —who may have been the oldest staff sergeant in the entire Armed Forces.

With increased numbers of Code Talkers, the Marines began to include Navajo radiomen in every operation at the battalion and regimental levels, but their usefulness came at a price: two died during the New Britain campaign, three on Bougainville. Eventually, more than 400 Navajo served as Code Talkers; thirteen of these killed in action.

The ingenuity, strength, scouting ability, and tracking capability stood the Navajo Marines in good stead in the South Pacific. They were used to Spartan living conditions and the hardships of island warfare seemed almost inconsequential to them. Although initially used at the company and battalion level, Navajo Marines became indispensable as their reputations expanded to regiments and divisions, but the Marines learned to guard these assets well, especially when fighting alongside Army units. To many soldiers, the Navajo looked “Japanese.” More than a few code talkers “almost” became casualties due to friendly fire. Several Navajo were “captured” and taken in for interrogation, only to be released back to their units and, I suppose, their minders handed a case of red ass for allowing the Navajo to get away from them.

On the eve of the First Marine Division’s departure for the island of Okinawa, which planners expected would be the bloodiest landing of the Pacific War up to this point, the Navajos performed a sacred ceremonial dance that invoked their deities’ blessings and protection for themselves and their fellow Americans; they prayed that their enemies’ resistance might prove weak and ineffectual. We are talking about Marines here, so some of the white Marine observers of this ceremony scoffed at the whole idea. When war correspondent Ernie Pyle reported the story afterward, he noted that the landings on Okinawa beach had proved much easier than expected and he even noted that several of the Navajos were quick to point this out to the skeptics in their units —in typical Marine fashion, I suppose.

Continued next week

Crisp salute to: Koji Kanemoto



[1] Subsequently, the U. S. Army also employed Native Americans as code talkers, primarily from the Choctaw and Comanche nations. These assets were employed in the European Theater, but never employed in the Pacific War.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

8 thoughts on “The Code Talkers, Part I”

  1. Reblogged this on AZVHV and commented:
    I’ve always been fascinated with the whole code-talker concept. I read last month that the last original code-talker, Marine Cpl. Chester Nez, passed away in June of this year at the age of 93. It’s disturbing, though I suppose understandable, that they were not allowed to reveal, even to their families, what they were doing. At a time when the sentiment in our country leaned toward great respect for WWII heroes, I think there was a huge missed opportunity because the country was unaware of these honorable soldiers. ~Bill


  2. The life of SSgt. Johnston was fascinating. What a patriot to enlist at the age of 49… I’m sure you would, too, in less than a heartbeat if your country called.

    In a life of chance and wisdom, SSgt. Johnston’s unique history helped bring victory to the US as did the patriotism of the Navajo. If feel remorse for the thirteen and their families.

    Your highlighting they first had to become a Marine was something I had overlooked, too.

    Thank you. I look forward to Part II.


  3. I knew about the story and saw the movie but many more aspects are being revealed in your write-up. It is a fascinating aspect of WWII. One wonders how such important things like this come about to help the white hats when really needed.


  4. You’ve revealed so much more than I knew about this corps, and I’ve read many stories of the code talkers. Fascinating post!


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