Marine Corps leadership selected 29 Navajo men, the Navajo Code Talkers, who created a code based on the complex, unwritten Navajo language. The code primarily used word association by assigning a Navajo word to key phrases and military tactics. This system enabled the Code Talkers to translate three lines of English in 20 seconds, not 30 minutes as was common with existing code-breaking machines. The Code Talkers participated in every major Marine operation in the Pacific theater, giving the Marines a critical advantage throughout the war. During the nearly month-long battle for Iwo Jima, for example, six Navajo Code Talker Marines successfully transmitted more than 800 messages without error. Marine leadership noted after the battle that the Code Talkers were critical to the victory at Iwo Jima. At the end of the war, the Navajo Code remained unbroken.
U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Thomas H. Begay shares his story about the Navajo Code Talker program and his experiences during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
World War II wasn’t the first time a Native American language was used to create a code.
During World War I, the Choctaw language was used in the transmission of secret tactical messages. It was instrumental in a successful surprise attack against the Germans.
Video by Reynaldo Leal and Ben Pekkanen, Department Veteran Affairs