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

Navajo Code Talkers and Marine Corps Corporal Henry Blake Junior and Private First Class George H. Kirk operate a radio in December 1943
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

A sculpture of a Navajo Code Talker stands at the Navajo Code Talkers Memorial in Window Rock, Arizona
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.

In the 1800s, Drinking Too Much Tea Could Get a Woman Sent to an Insane Asylum

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

If you were a woman in the 19th century, virtually anything could get you committed to an insane asylum—including drinking too much tea.

NHS Grampian Archives, which covers the region around Scotland’s Grampian mountains, dug up an admissions record from the Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum while looking into the institution’s annual reports from the 1840s. The table contains data on causes of admissions categorized by sex. In addition to those admitted to the asylum for “prolonged nursing,” “poverty,” or “disappointment in love” (one man and one woman admitted for that one!), one woman arrived at the asylum only to have her issues blamed on “sedentary life—abuse of tea.”

Intrigued by the diagnosis, someone at the archives tracked down more details on the patient and posted the case notes on Facebook. Naturally, her condition involved more than just a little too much Earl Grey. Elizabeth Collie, a 34-year-old factory worker, was admitted in November 1848 after suffering from delusions, specifically delusions about machines.

Her files state that “she imagines that some species of machinery has been employed by her neighbors in the house she has been living in, which had the effect of causing pain and disorder in her head, bowels, and other parts of the body.”

Asylum employees noted that ”no cause [for her condition] can be assigned, except perhaps the excessive use of tea, to which she has always been much addicted.” She was released in June 1849.

A letter to the editors of The British Medical Journal in 1886 suggests that the suspicion of women’s tea-drinking habits was not unique to Aberdeen mental health institutions. One doctor, J. Muir Howie—who once served as a regional president for the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, so we can assume he was relatively respectable—wrote to the publication:

Would you kindly allow me to draw attention to the fact that, among women at least, the abuse of tea frequently leads to the abuse of alcohol! My experience in connection with a home for inebriate women has led me to this conclusion. Many of the inmates, indeed, almost all of them, were enormous tea-drinkers before they became victims to alcoholic dipsomania. During their indulgence in alcohol, they rarely drink much tea; but, as soon as the former cut off, they return to the latter. In many instances, alcohol was first used to relieve the nervous symptoms produced by excessive tea drinking.

Ah, women. So susceptible to mania and vice. It's a miracle any of us stay out of the madhouse.

Remembering Tom Dempsey, the Toeless NFL Kicker Who Set a 43-Year Field Goal Record

Kicker Tom Dempsey #19 of the Philadelphia Eagles kicks off against the Washington Redskins during an NFL football game at Veterans Stadium November 10, 1974 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Kicker Tom Dempsey #19 of the Philadelphia Eagles kicks off against the Washington Redskins during an NFL football game at Veterans Stadium November 10, 1974 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

On April 4, 2020 former NFL legend Tom Dempsey—who set a field goal record with the New Orleans Saints nearly 50 years ago—passed away in New Orleans at the age of 73. It has been reported that Dempsey, who has been battling Alzheimer's disease and dementia since 2012, contracted coronavirus in March and his death was the result of complications from COVID-19. Read on to learn more about Dempsey's remarkable life.

 
 

Things weren't looking good for the New Orleans Saints on the evening of November 8, 1970, during a televised game against the Detroit Lions at Tulane Stadium. Though Saints quarterback Billy Kilmer had managed to connect with receiver Al Dodd on a 17-yard pass that stopped the clock, New Orleans was still down 17-16 with just two seconds left in the game. Worse yet, they were on their own 37-yard line—leaving 63 yards between them and the end zone.

Saints head coach J.D. Roberts, who had only been hired the week before, huddled with offensive coordinator Don Heinrich to quickly consider their options. There weren’t any. Suddenly, kicker Tom Dempsey, who had joined the team the year before, materialized. “I can kick it,” Dempsey told Roberts.

Dempsey would later recall that he didn’t know exactly how far the ball had to travel or that it would be an NFL record if he nailed it. If he had, he said, maybe he would’ve gotten too nervous and shanked it. But kicking the ball was what Dempsey did, even though he was born with only half of a right foot.

Heinrich sighed. There was no other choice. “Tell Stumpy to get ready,” he said.

 

Dempsey was born on January 12, 1947, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and later moved with his family to California. As a student at San Dieguito High School in Encinitas, California, Dempsey appeared unbothered by the congenital defect that resulted in a partial right foot and four missing fingers on his right hand. Dempsey wrestled and ran track. In football, he used his burly frame—he would eventually be 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weigh 255 pounds—to clobber opposing players as an offensive lineman. When coaches wanted to send opponents flying, they called in Dempsey.

After high school, Dempsey went on to attend Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, California, where he played football as a defensive end. At one point, when the team was in need of a kicker, the coach asked his players to line up and do their best to send the ball in the air. None kicked harder or farther than Dempsey, who became the kicker for the team and performed while barefoot, wrapping the end of his foot in athletic tape.

Tom Dempsey's modified football shoe is pictured
Tom Dempsey's modified football shoe.
Bullock Texas State History Museum

Playing at Palomar prepared Dempsey for a dual role as both lineman and kicker. But his strength, which made him so formidable on the field, occasionally got him into trouble on the sidelines, and he would eventually be kicked off the Palomar team for punching one of his coaches. After the incident, Dempsey tried out for the Green Bay Packers but found the physicality of professional players a little too much for him to handle. Rather than get into on-field collisions as an offensive lineman, he decided to focus solely on the aptitude he seemed to have for kicking. He eventually earned a spot on the San Diego Chargers practice squad in 1968. There, head coach Sid Gillman decided to encourage his choice of position—with some modifications.

Gillman enlisted an orthopedist to help develop a special leather shoe for Dempsey to wear. The boot had a block of leather 1.75 inches thick at one end and was mostly flat. Instead of kicking it soccer-style, as most players do today, Dempsey was able to use his leg like a mallet and hammer the ball with a flat, blunt surface.

The shoe, which cost $200 to fabricate, came in handy when Dempsey joined the Saints in 1969. He made 22 out of 41 field goals his rookie year and found himself in the Pro Bowl. But the 1970 season was comparatively dismal, and the Saints were holding a 1-5-1 record when they met the Detroit Lions on that night in November.

With two seconds left, “Stumpy” (Dempsey found the nickname affectionate rather than offensive) trotted onto the field. At 63 yards, he would have to best the then-record set by Baltimore Colts kicker Bert Rechichar in 1953 by seven yards.

No one appeared to think this was within the realm of possibility—you could almost hear a chuckle in CBS commentator Don Criqui's voice when he announced that Dempsey would be attempting the feat. Even the Lions seemed apathetic, not overly concerned with attempting to smother the play.

The ball was snapped by Jackie Burkett and received by Joe Scarpati, who gave it a quarter-turn. Dempsey remembered advice once given to him by kicking legend Lou “The Toe” Groza: Keep your head down and follow through. He took a step toward the ball and swung his leg like a croquet mallet, smashing into the football with a force that those on or near the field compared to a loud bang or a cannon. It sailed 63 yards to the goal post, which at the time was positioned directly on the goal line, and just made it over the crossbar.

Below, the referee threw his hands in the air to indicate the kick was good, punctuating it with a little hop of excitement. Dempsey was swarmed by his teammates and coaches. Don Criqui’s attitude in the booth quickly switched from amusement to incredulity. The Saints had won, 19-17.

“I don’t believe this,” Criqui exclaimed.

Neither could fans. In an era before instant replay, ESPN, or YouTube, you either caught Dempsey’s game-winning play or you heard about it at work or school the next week. Owing to its fleeting existence in the moment, schoolyards and offices filled with stories about how Dempsey’s boot may have somehow been augmented with a steel plate or other modification to boost his kicking prowess.

No such thing occurred, though that didn’t stop criticism. Tex Schramm, an executive with the Dallas Cowboys and chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, thought the shoe was an unfair advantage that allowed Dempsey to smash the ball like a golf club hitting a dimpled target. In 1977, the NFL instituted the “Tom Dempsey Rule,” which mandates that anyone and everyone has to wear a shoe shaped like a full foot. There would be no more allowances for special orthopedic shapes.

Dempsey appeared to take it all in stride. Shortly after his victorious kick, he received a letter from President Richard Nixon congratulating him on his inspirational demonstration. Immediately after the game, police officers went in to congratulate him by handing him cases of Dixie beer. Dempsey's girlfriend (and future wife) Carlene recalled that he didn’t come home for days due to rampant partying. When he finally settled down, they got married.

 

Dempsey spent a total of 11 years in the NFL, playing for the Saints, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams, the Houston Oilers, and finally the Buffalo Bills. In total, he made 159 field goals out of 258 attempts. For the next several decades, he would work as a salesman in the oil industry and manage a car lot before retiring in 2008 and settling down back near New Orleans. Over the years, Dempsey made several appearances at autograph shows, where he was regularly peppered with questions about the one kick that defined his career.

Almost as amazing as the kick was its attrition in the record books. While several other men managed to tie Dempsey’s record, it wasn’t until Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos kicked a 64-yard field goal on December 8, 2013, that it was finally broken—almost 43 years to the day. Some observers note that most of these notable field goals took place in Denver, where the air is thin and presumably more hospitable to kicking for distance. Dempsey managed it in New Orleans—and without toes.

Curiously, Dempsey’s legendary play was actually foreshadowed one year earlier. On October 5, 1969, he kicked a 55-yard field goal in Los Angeles. That was just one yard shy of the record he would obliterate the following year.

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