History of the Navajo Code Talkers for Kids

Bedtime History

Today we’re going to learn about a few of the people who were born in the Navajo Nation and their adventures that started back in 1942, around 80 years ago.

At this time in Europe, World War II has been raging for two years, but in the United States, people are still going about their daily activities – attending school, working in stores, tending family farms, and raising children.  But suddenly, on December 7, 1941, the US state of Hawaii is attacked by enemy planes.  Big battleships are sunk.  Many lives are lost.  The US must respond and save their nation – but how?

Military leaders get together to discuss a battle plan.  They gather soldiers, ships, tanks, and planes.  Next, they need to find a battle language – a secret code – to relay messages back and forth.  Their enemies are good at cracking codes – they did it in World War I and they are currently doing it in Europe during World War II.  So, what kind of code can they use?  They need a language that is unknown, and very difficult to speak and understand.  During the first World War, the US used Native American languages like Choctaw for their codes. Nineteen Choctaw warriors were sent into battle to relay secret messages.  The enemy couldn’t understand this Choctaw language; they thought the US had created some type of machine to record voices underwater!  However, after WWI, the enemy learned about this code and sent students to the US to learn Choctaw, plus other Native American languages such as Hopi, Comanche, and Cherokee.  The US military leaders need to find a new language – something unknown to most people.  An article about this search is printed in the papers.

Philip Johnston reads about this search in the paper and has an idea.  As a child, he was raised on a Navajo reservation with missionary parents, meaning religious people, who helped the Navajo.  He knows how to speak Navajo – a language that is not written has no alphabet and is very difficult to understand.  The same Navajo word can mean different things based on the tone of voice used or if the word is spoken in a high voice, a low voice, or even a rising or falling voice.  This would make a perfect code! 

Philip contacts the US military and, after a lot of convincing, they agree to use Navajo as their code!  They find 29 young Navajo men who are bilingual – meaning they speak Navajo and English – from the Navajo Nation spread across the US states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.  The men are sent to Camp Elliott in San Diego, California, for boot camp and training.  There is so much to learn:  they need to learn how to jump over high walls, crawl quietly through jungles with huge backpacks, shoot rifles, and hone survival skills like reading maps, building fires, and bandaging wounds.  But these Navajo soldiers have to learn even more.  They have to create and memorize a secret code – plus use a special radio to transmit these codes!

These young men are smart.  They know that the enemy might understand certain Navajo words, so they turn their language into a secret code!  Sometimes they will use their original Navajo words and sometimes they will change words.  For instance, in English, the word “cat” starts with the letter “C”.  The Navajo word for “cat” is “mosi” (mo-see).  So, now they will use the word “mo-see” to mean the letter C!  They do this trick with all the letters of the English alphabet.  And then they do something even more amazing!  They think of military words like “Captain” or “Patrol Plane” or “Mine Sweeper” and think of animals or objects that look or act like those military objects.  For example, a captain wears a pin with two metal stripes on his uniform.  This striped pin reminds the Navajo of railroad tracks.  So, the code for captain is now “two tracks.”  A patrol plane soars through the sky looking for things below, like troops, or tanks, or ships.  This reminds the Navajo of a bird that likes to fly and look for things on the ground.  Thus, they call a patrol plane a “crow!” And a mine sweeper ship cruises through the water looking for things in its way.  The Navajo code talkers say that’s a “beaver.”  And that is how they build their code – by turning military words into Navajo words with a secret meaning.  Now even a Navajo speaker will not know what they are talking about!  

The Code is ready.  Now it needs to be tested in battle!  Four hundred trained Navajo code talkers are sent to the Pacific islands of Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Guadalcanal, and Bougainville.  The fighting is fierce.  The noise of guns and grenades is deafening at times.  The code talkers work in pairs with no code books; everything is memorized.  They can’t risk the enemy finding the books and learning the code.  They can hardly think, speak, or hear each other with all the noise during intense battles.  And other times they have to be very quiet when speaking on the radio, especially at night, so their voices or the squawk of the radio will not give them away.  They relay messages day and night – such as where US planes and ships should land or fire, where the enemy is located, where to send more troops, or where to pick up injured soldiers.  This is incredibly important work and is very stressful and tiring – plus they have to stay safe themselves through all this action.  They are always the first to land and the last to leave in battle. They are on the front lines of battles learning important information to pass back to their commanders. It is very hard for them to stay alive and send accurate messages every day; however, they successfully send over 800 messages during the battle of Iwo Jima alone without one mistake! Due to their heroic actions and their secret code, the US wins the famous battle at Iwo Jima.

The Navajo Code Talkers serve for three years in battles all across the Pacific Islands, relaying thousands of messages, saving countless lives, and securing victory in the Pacific with the US Marines.  The enemy never cracks their code.  

Finally, the war ends and the Navajo code breakers return to their homes and families in the Navajo Nation.  Some have died bravely in battle, but many have miraculously survived.  Their code and mission remain secret and confidential for more than 20 years, until details are released in 1968.  That is because the US military continued to use their Navajo code in other battles, such as Vietnam and Korea.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan honored the code talkers and declared August 14 “Navajo Code Talkers Day.”  In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Congressional medals of honor to 29 of the original code talkers, followed by additional award ceremonies in 2001 by President George W. Bush and 2017 by President Donald Trump.  

Code Talker Peter MacDonald states, “What a privilege God had given to us to do that job, for selecting the Navajo!”  He opens his old, faded code book. With a gnarled finger, he traces across the page and lands on the word “America.”  Beside it is the Navajo code: “Our Mother.”  His weathered face breaks into a grin – the Navajo have helped save America, their nation’s mother.

I think we owe a large debt of gratitude to the Navajo Nation and the brave young men who fought so valiantly in the Pacific relaying thousands of messages swiftly and accurately while under extreme battle conditions.  They offer us many important life lessons about duty, honor, service to others bravery, courage, and so much more.  Each of us in our own way has something to offer to the world: a skill, a talent, a helping spirit, or a language!  Just think what amazing things we can accomplish if we work together and help one another.  What is your special gift and what could you do to better your community?

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