The Navajo Language: A Blessing In Disguise
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Building of The Navajo Code


Philip Johnston’s proposal was accepted.  U.S. sergeant Frank Shinn asked Navajo council chairman Chee Dodge for help in the building of a code.  Dodge went on the radio and sent out a call for Navajo recruits.  There were requirements of being between eighteen and thirty years of age, being at least one hundred twenty-two pounds in weight, and being fluent in both English and Navajo languages.

Many Navajos eagerly applied for this job.  One Navajo, Dean Wilson, lied about his age, changing it from fifteen to eighteen so he would be accepted for the job.  Carl Gorman, however, claimed to be thirty instead of thirty-six.  Some of the underweight volunteers ate bunches of bananas.  One Navajo drank four pounds of water because he was told that he was three pounds under the weight limit.  “When we were recruited, we knew only that we were to be specialists of some kind, but did not know that we would have anything to do with setting up codes.”  Some Navajos even confused the word “marine” with “submarine” and assumed that they would be training for undersea duty.

The Navajo Code construction was underway.  Thirty Navajos were recruited.  They built a code in varying forms.  The letter “a,” for example, was wol-la-chee for the Navajo word ant.  The term for “bomb” was “egg” because the word “bomb” wasn’t in the Navajo language and a bomb closely resembled an egg.  The word “bomb” was given the code name a-ye-shi.  Months were named after their characteristics.  March was given the name “small plant” or Tah-chill based on the fact that it is the beginning of Spring, and the time to plant seed.  A word like “belong” was a made into a play on spelling, so it was given the code name “long bee” or tses-tah-snez.  Punctuation was given a name according to shape.  For instance, “parentheses” were “ribs” or atsanh and “colons” were  “two spots” or naki-alh--deh-da-al-zhin.  Some of these words may be heard spoken by Richard Begay on the web.

Japanese code interceptors and cryptologists started to see patterns in the code.  For instance, in Guadalcanal, there are four wol-la-chee’s in that word.  The Japanese were starting to recognize that.  To cover up, they made two substitute letters for the more common letters such as E, A, I, O, S, T, etc., but did not bother with letters such as Q, X, or Z.  It was time for the Navajo tribe to serve their country in war.

Keith Little was one of the Marines chosen to be a Code Talker. "First, when I enlisted, I went to San Diego for boot camp. Just about the time I was getting done with boot camp training, my drill instructor came up to me one day and said, 'Are you an American Indian?' I told him, 'Yes, sir.' Then he said, 'Are you a Navajo?' And I said, 'Yes, sir.' Then he made a remark that the Marine Corps needed Navajos because they made good scouts. My platoon mates heard everything he said to me. I got a good ribbing out of that. They said that I was going to get my butt shot off for being eligible for going scouting (scouts cross the front line and go ahead to look around), because I could get shot at all the time. I didn’t understand that he was saying that Navajos would make good communicators.
         
"So I went with a bunch of Navajos. We loaded up onto a truck and they hauled us up to a place called Camp Pendleton. We got there about noontime. There was nobody in the barracks, just us new arrivals. When the company came back it was about 4:30 in the afternoon, and we went out to see what they looked like. There were about 200 Navajos there, and we were stymied, wondering what all those Navajos were doing here together. They still wouldn’t tell us what we were doing there.

The next day they told us exactly what we were going to do. We were going to study the Navajo code and memorize it. They told us, 'When you go on leave, when you go home to your family, don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.' It was top military secret. It was bewilderment for all of us. You wanted to know why, but they wouldn’t have any of it. They wouldn’t let us ask questions. 'Just do what you are told,' they said. When we were in the classroom we were drilled and drilled. No writing it down. It was all memorized. No pencils, no  pieces of paper would go out of the classroom. At the end of the class you had to hand in every pencil and piece of paper."
Cover to the Code Talker Manual inside page of the Code Talker Manual
On the left side is the cover of the Code Talkers' Manual and on the right is one of the inside pages of it.
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