During the early months of World War II, Japanese intelligence experts broke every code the U.S. forces devised.
They were able to anticipate American actions at an alarming rate. With plenty of fluent English-speakers at their disposal, they sabotaged messages and issued false commands to ambush Allied troops.
To combat this, increasingly complex codes were initiated. The military complained that sending and receiving these codes required hours of encryption and decryption for a single message. They rightly argued that the military needed a better way to communicate.
When Phillip Johnston, a civilian living in California, learned of the crisis, he had the answer. As a son of a Protestant missionary, Johnston had grown up on the Navajo reservation and was one of less than 30 outsiders fluent in their difficult language.
He realized that since it had no alphabet and was almost impossible to master without early exposure, the Navajo language had great potential as an indecipherable code. He was given permission to begin a Navajo code talker program.
This elite unit was formed in early 1942 with the first 29 Navajo code talkers. They were referred to as ‘the Original 29.” Many of these enlistees were just boys and most had never been away from home before. Often lacking birth certificates, it was impossible to verify their ages.
After the war it was discovered that recruits as young as 15 and as old as 35 had enlisted.
The code they created was as ingenious as it was effective. They could communicate in 20 seconds what coding machines of the time took 30 minutes to do.
Once trained, the Navajo code talkers were sent to the Pacific Theatre of World War II. They quickly gained a distinguished reputation for their remarkable abilities.
After the war, they returned home as heroes without a hero’s welcome. Their code was considered a military secret too important to divulge. They remained silent heroes for more than two decades.
In 2001, nearly 60 years after they created their legendary code, the Navajo code talkers finally received their well-deserved Congressional Medals of Honor.
Now, in their 80s and 90s, only a few of these silent heroes remain alive.
Contributing writer Everett Vanover lives in Fairfield, Calif.