“Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
—Major Howard Connor, USMC 5th Marine Division Signal Officer
In the South Pacific Theater of World War II, U.S. military forces had a significant problem. The Japanese were highly proficient at deciphering coded American communications. To counter the cleverness of the Japanese cryptographers, 29 Navajo Marines were recruited to devise a secret military code based on their native language. By the end of WWII, over 400 Navajo Marines served as Code Talkers.
Marine Corps commanders credited the Navajo Code Talkers with saving the lives of countless soldiers during pivotal battles in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal, Wake Island, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Midway, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. In addition, the Code Talkers helped achieve these crucial allied victories in the South Pacific.
All the way back in World War I, Native American codes of various tribes had been used to some extent during America’s armed conflicts. But ironically, in 1917, Native Americans had not yet been granted citizenship. For decades, U.S. government-run schools for Native American children also forbade them from speaking their native languages. Tragic as that is, this ignominy contributed to the Code Talkers’ success. One of the reasons Native American codes were so hard to break is that most of their languages were, and still are, verbal and not written.
Interestingly, the Navajo soldiers’ exploits and the code itself were a closely guarded secret for decades—just in case they would be needed again. The Navajo code wasn’t declassified until 1968 and the Code Talkers didn’t receive official recognition until July 2001, when President George W. Bush awarded the 29 surviving original Code Talkers or their families with Congressional Gold Medals in the Capitol Rotunda. The other still-living Code Talkers or families received Congressional Silver Medals in a ceremony at Window Rock, AZ, later in 2001.
The Navajo Code Talker Monument honors the young men who used their native language to send messages during World War II. The monument is located inside the Window Rock Navajo Tribal Park in Window Rock, Arizona.