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Code talkers used native language to confound enemy

By Cpl. Joshua Bozeman | | July 18, 2002

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They had a four-letter word for 'mine sweeper' and a 10-letter word for 'key'. They spoke a language within a language, and they proved conclusively that being able to communicate effectively was just as important as being able to fire a weapon accurately.

The Navajo code talkers, as they later became known, are descendants of a proud people, so joining the few and the proud was just another step in the Navajo nation's history. Once again, they put their lives on the line to protect the freedom of their native land.

The first code talkers were known as 'the Original 29.' The code originated from the idea of a Christian missionary to the Navajo people. The missionary had spent several years learning the language. He also knew the U.S. military had used Native American languages in past wars to encode messages, so he recommended using Navajo as a code.

Shortly thereafter several Navajos created the code, drawing on words from their native language vocabulary.

The Original 29 created the code during a session they spent giving secondary meanings to various words that matched military protocol. For example, the Navajo encoders took the word Be-sitihn, which is literally translated deer lay and gave it the secondary military meaning delay. Likewise, Al-tsan-ah-bahm, which literally means  each end in Navajo, was assigned the meaning Extreme by the code talkers.

To complicate matters more, the code talkers had words which they only used the first letter of the English translation. For example, the Navajo word wol-la-chee means ant in English; therefore it was the code word for the letter A. The more common letters of the alphabet were designated by three Navajo words to complicate the code further. The remaining letters of the alphabet were assigned two Navajo.

According to one story, the Japanese captured a Navajo who was not a code talker. When they tried to get him to translate the code from radio interceptions, he gave them the literal translation of the words that were coming over the wire, which confused both the Japanese and the Native American even more.

Approximately 400 code talkers were eventually assigned throughout every major Marine division and battalion. The communicators usually worked in teams - one to speak and one to write.

Although the code talkers had great strategic value, many fought as infantrymen and died in the field.

The plot of the recently released MGM movie 'Windtalkers,' is centered on Marine 'bodyguards' assigned to guard the code talkers ... and, if necessary, to assassinate them to prevent their capture by the enemy. A few of the code talkers agree this actually happened, while others say it's just Hollywood 'spicing up' the story.

An ironic twist to the use of the Navajo language in the defense of freedom is the fact that during the early 20th century, the U.S. government banned the use of Native American languages in its effort to assimilate Navajos into the "Americanized culture." Reportedly, those who insisted upon using their native languages had their mouths washed out with soap, or worse.

One of the most notable campaigns the code talkers participated in was the Battle of Iwo Jima, during which they received and transmitted an estimated 800 messages without error during the first 48 hours of the campaign.

One such message, which was attributed to Maj. Howard Conner, a 5th Marine Division signal officer, said "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

The mostly unwritten Navajo code was used to aid Marines in battles across the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.

The Japanese never broke the code. The code was so valuable as a secret and effective U.S. communication tool that it remained classified until 1968. Although the encoders who survived the war returned to their homes, they were sworn to secrecy.

Now the once forbidden Navajo language is being praised and remembered through a major motion picture and countless publications throughout the United States Ð an exemplary lesson on the strength of unified diversity.

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