Navajo Code Talkers

The United States Marine Corps possessed an extraordinary, unbreakable code during World War II: the Navajo language. Utilized in the Pacific theater, the Navajo code talkers enabled the Marine Corps to coordinate massive operations, such as the assault on Iwo Jima, without revealing any information to the enemy.

Code talkers didn’t speak plain language in Navajo, but rather encoded the messages in a phonetic code and incorporated other vocabulary adaptations to meet the needs of modern warfare. Thus, anyone seeking to intercept the messages would have to know both the Navajo language and the codebook. Long after the war, code talker Peter MacDonald Sr. recorded a sample of Navajo code for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“An Unbreakable Code,”

Given their historic significance, the code talkers are underrepresented in National Archives special media. The code talker program wasn’t even revealed publicly until 1968. Due to the secret status of the operations, and probably unaware of the impact they would have, the Marine Corps did not extensively photograph or film the code talkers in action.

An important exception is the series “Photographs of Navajo Indian “Code-Talkers” in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1943 – 1948,” which contains 25 photographs of the code talkers, many of whom are identified by name. Based on visual similarities, the second photograph might have inspired the memorial statue depicted at the bottom of this blog post.

“Photograph of Navajo Indian Code Talkers Preston Toledo and Frank Toledo,” Local ID: 127-MN-57875, NAID: 100378007
“Marine Indian Uses Walky-Talky,” Local ID: 127-MN-064081, NAID: 100378135

Recognition of the Navajo contribution to the war effort came only slowly.

President, Office of the: Presidential Briefing Papers: Records, 1981-1989, 02/11/1982 (case file 059220) (2)

The NBC program Real People aired a segment on the code talkers in 1981 which inspired over 17,000 Americans to write to the president seeking some form of recognition for the code talkers. President Ronald Reagan issued a certificate of recognition to the code talkers and proclaimed August 14, 1982 as Navajo Code Talkers Day.

Since then, the code talkers have received various forms of recognition from the federal government. Motion Picture holdings include 330-DIMOC-DDDEE970605, which records a reception for the code talkers celebrating the installation of a museum display at the Pentagon. The video lacks a precise date, but the reception occurred during Colin Powell’s tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (October 1, 1989 – September 30, 1993). The ceremony includes the national anthem sung in Navajo plus remarks by President of the Navajo Nation Peterson Zah and Senator John McCain.

“Navajo Code Talkers Reception,” Local ID: 330-DIMOC-DDDEE970605, NAID: 140106301

In 2008, the Najavo Nation erected a memorial to the code talkers in their capitol of Window Rock, Arizona, home to the Navajo Nation Museum. The Federal Emergency Management Agency took this photograph in documenting a severe freeze which occurred in Navajo territory in 2013.

“Window Rock, Ariz., March 14, 2013,” 311-MAD-69854, NAID: 2446347

3 thoughts on “Navajo Code Talkers

  1. Loved this! The photos are awesome, and the film at the end is wonderful. I hope the Navajo Code Talkers are never forgotten.

  2. You learn something every day. A fascinating piece of history about the only true American people & a brilliant idea.

  3. They contributed greatly to our victory over the Japanese in WWII and gave their lives for the United States of America. It is well past due that we recognize their sacrifice and enable them to live better lives and share in the wealth of America.

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