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Thursday, June 11, 2015

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A Moment In History With Navajo Code Talkers

A Moment In History with the Navajo Code Talkers

This Tuesday flags are being flown on  Native American reservations at half staff until sunrise on June 12 to honor the death of the last Navajo Code talker used in World War 2. Bahe Ketchum, a member of an elite group of Marines who helped create the only unbroken code in modern military history, died Monday morning. He was 96.  Ketchum served with the 6th Marine Division from 1944 to 1946, reaching the rank of private first class. Ketchum saw combat at Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and Tsingtao and also served in the Ryukyu Islands, Guam and China.The Navajo Code Talkers were invaluable to the Allied effort in WWII, and the Navajo code still remains the only unbroken code in modern military history.

Code talkers are people, who in the 20th century utilized their skill with obscure languages as a means of secret communication during wartime. The term is now most notably associated with the United States soldiers during the world wars who used their knowledge of Native American languages as a basis to transmit coded messages. At one point, there were approximately 400–500 Native Americans in the United States Marine Corps whose primary job was the transmission of secret messages. Code talkers transmitted these tactical messages over military telephone or radio communications nets using formal or informally developed codes built on their native languages. Their service improved the speed of encryption of communications at both ends in front line operations during World War II. Although the term code talkers is strongly associated with bilingual Navajo speakers specially recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in communications  it was pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw Indians during World War I. Though most well known for their time in WW2, the deployment of the Navajo code talkers continued through the Korean War and after, until it was ended early in the Vietnam War.

Philip Johnston, a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles, proposed the use of Navajo to the United States Marine Corps at the beginning of World War II. Johnston, a World War I veteran, was raised on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary to the Navajo. He was one of the few non-Navajo who spoke the language fluently. Due to it's complex grammar, Navajo is not nearly mutually intelligible enough with even its closest relatives within the Na-Dene family to provide meaningful information. It was still an unwritten language, and Johnston thought Navajo could satisfy the military requirement for an undecipherable code. Navajo was spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, made it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. The Navajo language was perfect to use for code.

Early in 1942, Johnston met with Major General Clayton B. Vogel and his fleet. Johnston staged tests under simulated combat conditions which demonstrated that Navajo men could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds, rather than the 30 minutes required by machines at that time. The idea was accepted, with Vogel recommending that the Marines recruit 200 Navajo. The first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp in May 1942. This first group created the Navajo code at Camp Pendleton in California.

The Navajo code was formally developed and modeled on the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet that uses agreed-upon English words to represent letters. It was determined that phonetically spelling out all military terms letter by letter into words—while in combat—would be too time-consuming, some terms, concepts, tactics and instruments of modern warfare were given uniquely formal descriptive nomenclatures in Navajo (for example, the word for "shark" being used to refer to a destroyer, or "silver oak leaf" to the rank of lieutenant colonel). Several of these portmanteaus (such as gofasters referring to running shoes, ink sticks for pens) entered Marine Corps vocabulary. They are commonly used today to refer to the appropriate objects.

A special codebook was developed to teach the many relevant words and concepts to new initiates but it was used only for classroom purposes. Uninitiated Navajo speakers would have no idea what the code talkers' messages meant; they would hear only truncated and disjointed strings of individual, unrelated nouns and verbs.

While the war progressed, additional code words would be added on and incorporated through out the program. Often times informal short-cut code words were devised for a particular campaign and not disseminated beyond the area of operation. To ensure a consistent use of code terminologies throughout the Pacific Theater, representative code talkers of each of the U.S. Marine divisions would meet in Hawaii to discuss shortcomings in the code, incorporate new terms into the system, and update their codebooks. These representatives in turn trained the other code talkers. For example, the Navajo word for buzzard, jeeshóóʼ, was used for bomber, while the code word used for submarine, béésh łóóʼ, meant iron fish in Navajo.The last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers who developed the code, Chester Nez, died on June 4, 2014.

These men were great warriors, we will always be grateful for the incredible impact they had on winning wars. For more information on Code Talkers and the Navajo Nation go to:

For a brief  history, watch this:

Do you have family or friends that knew any Code Talkers? We would love to hear your story! 

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