Navajo Code Talkers


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Narrator: Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor , Navajos who were fluent in both Navajo and English were recruited from boarding schools and communities throughout the reservation to join the U.S. Marine Corps. After boot camp, young Navajo recruits were sent to Camp Pendleton , the U.S. Marine training base near San Diego . There, they attended a special school. Merril Sandoval: At the time I was transferred there, there was over 200 Navajos in one barrack. They told us that they would use our language for the Marine Corps.

Narrator: The first group of 29 used the Navajo language to devise a communication code. They created a dictionary using Navajo words as letters of the alphabet and for military terms.

Merril Sandoval: We had to learn English in military terms, military equipment, military rank. No Navajo word for "grenade," "artillery," "dive bomber," "aircraft carrier."

Narrator: The dictionary and code words all had to be memorized during training.

Merril Sandoval: We couldn't be carrying any references out there in battle, so we memorized everything. At that age, I guess we were pretty good at memorizing. Narrator: The code talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific theater. Their primary job was to transmit messages in code by radio and telephone about troop movements, tactics, and vital battlefield orders. The code talkers were on the front lines when the U.S. troops landed at Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal .

Dr. Sam Billison: Our job was to invade Iwo Jima , so that's what we did.

Merril Sandoval: And it was a rough landing, and we had so many ships. I think we had about 10 or 12 aircraft carriers. That beach was a mess: dead Marines, equipment. Oh, boy. And if the Navy didn't get us in straight to the beach, the thing was that our little boats would start going over. Ours turned over. Frankly, I had to swim ashore.

Dr. Sam Billison: A lot of people think Code Talkers were sitting somewhere in the rear echelon talking radio, but we were out on the front line. That's where the messages have to come from, from the front line back to the headquarters.

Merril Sandoval: And on the other end, the Navajo Code Talker receives it, and he translates it back to English and give it to their commanders. And it's so fast; it just took them maybe a minute. And no mistakes. That's the way we were trained, so we did our job that way.

Dr. Sam Billison: Who would think that a bunch of sheep herders would develop a code that nobody broke? Japanese didn't break it, the Marines didn't break it, so I always say that there must have been some -- some help from somewhere, spiritual help. And these were all young kids -- 17, 18, 19.

Narrator: The Navajo code was so valuable in winning World War II that it remained a classified secret until 1968.

Man: We were a special group, but we never realized it until after the war was over.

Narrator: Only in recent years have the men who served as Navajo Code Talkers received the awards and recognition they deserve. At a Marine Corps reunion in 1969, they were presented with a special medallion. In 2001, they finally received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Code Talkers are modest about their role.

Dr. Sam Billison: I always think it was the language. It wasn't us, we just used it. It's the Navajo language that did the work.