Fighting Words: The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II

Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

While names like Patton, Hitler, and Churchill occur frequently in discussions of World War II, relatively few people mention names like John Brown, Chester Nez, Lloyd Oliver, or Allen Dale June. Yet all of these men, and hundreds more, were key figures in bringing the Allied forces to victory. As members of the Navajo Nation, they were recruited for an audacious project, forming a network of communications operators who transmitted information through their unique and unwritten language. These "Code Talkers," as they came to be known, occupied the front lines of major battles in the Pacific, allowing the U.S. military to send important messages in near-total secrecy.

The Navajo Code Talkers toiled in relative obscurity, silenced by classified mandates and a tendency to keep their heroic efforts to themselves. They often worked under extreme duress and spectacular violence, never once wavering from their mission: Using their complex language to outsmart and outmaneuver their foes.

An Un-Crackable Code

The project got its start in the early 1940s with Philip Johnston, an American World War I veteran who grew up on a Navajo reservation, where his father was a missionary. After spending his childhood on the reservation, Johnston was familiar with the Navajo language, a complicated spoken tongue understood by fewer than about 28 people—mostly anthropologists and missionaries—outside of the Navajo Nation. He even served as an interpreter, at age 9, for Navajos meeting with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, in which the Navajos lobbied for better conditions for their people.

One day in 1942, Johnston was reading a newspaper article about an armored division in Louisiana looking to develop a code based on a Native American language. He thought that Navajo might be just the language they were looking for.

Johnston headed for a local naval office and got routed to the headquarters of the Eleventh Naval District in San Diego, California. There, he met Major James E. Jones, and explained his theory—that the Navajos communicated with incredible complexity, and it would be virtually impossible for messages in their language to be cracked.

Jones listened with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. Language from another Native American tribe, the Choctaw, had been used during World War I under a similar belief it would be difficult for the enemy to understand. It had been employed with great success near the end of the war, but in the years that followed, the Germans had gone on to pose as students and anthropologists in the United States in an attempt to learn Choctaw, as well as Cherokee and Comanche. It was possible they were now capable of breaching another indigenous tongue.

Then Johnston began speaking Navajo—and Jones was impressed. The complex language intrigued him enough to agree to more complete demonstration in two weeks, in which messages would be encoded and then decoded by members of the Navajo Nation. In the interim, Johnston wrote an impassioned letter explaining the language and why he felt it would be impenetrable. He sent a copy to Jones and Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, who also agreed to show up for the exercise.

Faster Than a Machine

Robert Sullivan, Flickr // Public Domain

Johnston contacted four Navajo men and brought them to Camp Elliott, just outside San Diego, on February 27, 1942, for the demonstration. The next day, Vogel gave the team six messages and 45 minutes to figure out a method for encryption. When he returned, the men were able to create a code in Navajo, relay it, decode it, and recite it back in English, all in a matter of minutes. Military encryption machines could take hours.

Jones's skepticism vanished. So did Vogel's, who wrote a letter recommending the Marine Corps recruit 200 Navajos for the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet. On May 5, 1942, 29 Navajos who had been gathered by Marine personnel at Fort Defiance, Shiprock, and Fort Wingate arrived in San Diego for basic training—and to begin arranging a code that would prove un-crackable for even the most determined Axis intelligence officers. Despite being in his forties, Johnston enlisted later that year to help train the recruits.

Some of the Navajo men who worked on the code volunteered for service, while others were drafted. Many in the tribe displayed a fierce patriotism and willingness to fight, even amid ongoing tensions with the U.S. government. According to The Code Book by Simon Singh, a number of Navajo even lied about their age (some were as young as 15) to join, or gorged on bananas and water to make minimum weight requirements. Most were enthusiastic about fighting the Axis powers, even though their mission took them by surprise. "All I thought when I went in [was that] the Marine Corps was going to give me a belt of ammunition, and a rifle, a steel helmet, and a uniform," Chester Nez, one of the Navajo recruited, said in 2004. "Go and shoot some of those Japanese. That's what I thought. But later on they told us differently … [a different] purpose of why they got us in."

Portions of the code were relatively straightforward. The Navajo used words for birds to describe specific aircraft: A fighter plane was da-he-tih-hi, the Navajo word for "hummingbird." A bomber plane was jay-sho, or "buzzard." A patrol plane was ga-gih, or "crow."

For military terms that had no obvious correlation, the team used a words-for-letters system, with one or more words assigned to each letter of the English alphabet. The letter A was represented by wol-la-chee ("ant"), be-la-sana ("apple"), or tse-nill ("axe"). The variety offered additional protection against a breach in security. Communicating the name of the island of Tarawa, for example, would be turkey-ant-rabbit-ant-weasel-ant, or than-zie, wol-la-chee, gah, wol-la-chee, gloe-ih, wol-la-chee.

The vocabulary began with 211 words, but eventually grew to 411. For security purposes, the code could not be written down and carried. The men would have to memorize the words that represented the English letters and military terms. They would need to know that the hard-shelled tortoise, or chay-da-gahi, meant another kind of hard shell: a tank. Because their culture was preserved via oral history, memorization came easily to most.

Perfection Under Pressure

Ron Cogswell, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In total, between 375 and 420 Navajos were recruited for secure transmission work. The Navajo radio operators—who later came to be known as Code Talkers—were dispatched to virtually every major Marine presence in the Pacific theater. They worked in pairs: One remained behind the lines and one transmitted via radio from the heat of battle, sometimes working while under enemy fire or during shocking displays of wartime violence. In author Doris Paul's book The Navajo Code Talkers, one Code Talker recalled: "If you so much as held up your head up six inches, you were gone, the fire was so intense." He also related an enemy attack that left a buddy in the trench dead, his blood covering the Navajo's hand as he radioed in for help.

Despite the extremely stressful conditions, the messages were delivered flawlessly. The Navajo Code Talkers participated in operations in Guam, Palau, and Okinawa; at Iwo Jima, six Code Talkers worked around the clock, delivering between 600 and 800 messages with no errors. The signal officer at Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, later remarked that the Marines would not have succeeded there if it weren't for the Navajo.

Despite its successes, the program was not without flaws. The Marine Corps likely could have used more Code Talkers, yet Navajos enlisting through the Selective Service rarely went to the Marines. Plus, not all stations using the code could communicate with one another: If one had a Navajo operator and one did not, there was no one to decipher messages. And on a few occasions, American soldiers captured Navajo, believing them to be Japanese. Many squads took to escorting Navajo Code Talkers with personal bodyguards to avoid such incidents.

After the war's end, it would be nearly 25 years before the Code Talkers' mission was declassified and the Navajos' efforts would become part of the historical record. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan awarded members of the group with a Certificate of Recognition, and acknowledged their contribution with a Navajo Code Talkers Day celebrated on August 14 every year. In 2000, Bill Clinton signed a law awarding the Code Talkers the Congressional Gold Medal. The following year, George Bush presented the medal to four of the surviving members: John Brown, Chester Nez, Lloyd Oliver, and Allen Dale June. Traditionally silent about their contributions, the Navajos were able to take their rightful place among the giants of the war, speaking the words that helped end one of the greatest conflicts in modern history. Their code was never breached.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

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10 Fast Facts About Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Robert Riger/Getty Images

Wilma Rudolph made history as a Black female athlete at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. The 20-year-old Tennessee State University sprinter was the first American woman to win three gold medals at one Olympics. Rudolph’s heroics in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4 x 100-meter events only lasted seconds, but her legend persists decades later, despite her untimely 1994 death from cancer at age 54. Here are some facts about this U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame member.

1. Wilma Rudolph faced poverty and polio as a child.

When Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1940, in Clarksville, Tennessee, she weighed just 4.5 pounds. Olympic dreams seemed impossible for Rudolph, whose impoverished family included 21 other siblings. Among other maladies, she had measles, mumps, and pneumonia by age 4. Most devastatingly, polio twisted her left leg, and she wore leg braces until she was 9.

2. Wilma Rudolph originally wanted to play basketball.

The Tennessee Tigerbelles. From left to right: Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, Wilma Rudolph, and Barbara Jones.Central Press/Getty Images

At Clarksville’s Burt High School, Rudolph flourished on the basketball court. Nearly 6 feet tall, she studied the game, and ran track to keep in shape. However, while competing in the state basketball championship in Nashville, the 14-year-old speedster met a referee named Ed Temple, who doubled as the acclaimed coach of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles track team. Temple, who would coach at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, recruited Rudolph.

3. Wilma Rudolph made her Olympic debut as a teenager.

Rudolph hit the limelight at 16, earning a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. But that didn’t compare to the media hype when she won three gold medals in 1960. French journalists called her “The Black Pearl,” the Italian press hailed “The Black Gazelle,” and in America, Rudolph was “The Tornado.”

4. After her gold medals, Wilma Rudolph insisted on a racially integrated homecoming.

Tennessee governor Buford Ellington, who supported racial segregation, intended to oversee the Clarksville celebrations when Rudolph returned from Rome. However, she refused to attend her parade or victory banquet unless both were open to Black and white people. Rudolph got her wish, resulting in the first integrated events in the city’s history.

5. Muhammad Ali had a crush on Wilma Rudolph.

Ali—known as Cassius Clay when he won the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight boxing title—befriended Rudolph in Rome. That fall, the 18-year-old boxer invited Rudolph to his native Louisville, Kentucky. He drove her around in a pink Cadillac convertible.

6. John F. Kennedy literally fell over when he invited Wilma Rudolph to the White House.

President Kennedy, Wilma Rudolph, Rudolph’s mother Blanche Rudolph, and Vice President Johnson in the Oval Office.Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

In 1961, Rudolph met JFK in the Oval Office. After getting some photos taken together, the President attempted to sit down in his rocking chair and tumbled to the floor. Kennedy quipped: “It’s not every day that I get to meet an Olympic champion.” They chatted for about 30 minutes.

7. Wilma Rudolph held three world records when she retired.

Rudolph chose to go out on top and retired in 1962 at just 22 years old. Her 100-meter (11.2 seconds), 200-meter (22.9 seconds), and 4 x 100-meter relay (44.3 seconds) world records all lasted several years.

8. Wilma Rudolph visited West African countries as a goodwill ambassador.

The U.S. State Department sent Rudolph to the 1963 Friendship Games in Dakar, Senegal. According to Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis, while there, Rudolph independently met with future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers, a nationalist youth movement. She visited Mali, Guinea, and the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) as well.

9. Denzel Washington made his TV debut in a movie about Wilma Rudolph.

Before his Oscar-winning performances in Glory (1989) and Training Day (2001), a 22-year-old Denzel Washington portrayed Robert Eldridge, Rudolph’s second husband, in Wilma (1977). The film also starred Cicely Tyson as Rudolph’s mother Blanche.

10. Schools, stamps, and statues commemorate Wilma Rudolph’s legacy.

Berlin, Germany, has a high school named after Rudolph. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp celebrating her in 2004. Clarksville features a bronze statue by the Cumberland River, the 1000-capacity Wilma Rudolph Event Center, and Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. In Tennessee, June 23 is Wilma Rudolph Day.