A Cryptologic Veteran’s Analysis of The Navajo Code Talkers

Reviewed by George McGinnis

29 July 1998

During World War II, several hundred Navajo Indians were used by the Marine Corps to transmit and receive tactical voice messages using their native language as the coding system. Because their language is an obscure one, this gave essentially complete transmission security.

The idea was not a new one. In World War One, Choctaw Indians had been used for a similar purpose. Mr. Philip Johnston, an engineer for the city of Los Angeles, resurrected the idea early in World War II. Mr. Johnston was the son of a missionary to the Navajo nation. From childhood he had been raised among Navajo children and as a result spoke their language with native fluency. He was one of only about 28 non-Navajo individuals in the entire world who spoke the language.

With Mr. Johnston's assistance 29 Navajos were recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps. They developed a syllabary of 211 code words, which represented military terms foreign to their language. Examples are:

WordNavajo WordMeaning
Cavalry Lin-yea-nal-dai-hi Horsemen
Howitzer Be-el-ton-tso-quodi Short big gun
Aircraft Tsidi Bird

They also worked out a method for spelling obscure words. The original 211 words were later expanded to 411, which the code talkers memorized. After the idea proved successful in several trials in the United States additional Navajos were recruited and the final number was 540 of which 420 qualified as code talkers.

In cryptographic terms, they developed a one-part code of 211 (later 411) words, plus 26 words representing each letter of the alphabet. They then placed an additive on each word in the syllabary, the additive being their Navajo tongue. For ordinary words not requiring the syllabary the Navajo tongue was used. This particular code had two weaknesses: some plain text was interspersed with code, and the code was never changed. On the other hand the code system was secure because no foreigners spoke Navajo. It would have required several years of intense effort to break the code, and then only with the assistance of a cooperative individual having native Navajo language fluency. This latter requirement made any code breaking effort fruitless.

The code talkers were used in every Marine operation in the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. They performed their job well and received commendations for their work. In 1969, at the 22nd anniversary reunion of the Fourth Marine Division, the code talkers were reassembled. They were presented a special medal depicting a famous painting entitled Ira Hayes, His Dream – His Reality by Joe Ruiz Grandee.

Reviewer’s Further Comments

This is an interesting book. One appendix contains the original Marine Corps staff study that recommended use of the code talkers. Having done a number of staff studies myself, I give its author a 4.0. The NSA Museum has a large display about the Code Talkers.

Publishing Information

The Navajo Code Talkers, by Doris A. Paul, Dorrance Publishing Company, Pittsburgh, PA, 15222, ISBN 0-8059-1870-1, 170 pages.