George Smith and his fellow Navajo code talkers played an important but long under-appreciated role in defeating the Japanese in the bloody, hard-fought Pacific islands campaign during World War II.
Smith, who died on Oct. 30 at age 90 in Window Rock, Ariz., was part of a group of about 400 Native Americans who transmitted battlefield communications in a fashion that baffled Japanese code-breakers — by talking on the radio in their own indigenous languages. That tactic was so effective, in fact, that the Pentagon kept the code-talkers’ exploits classified for decades, according to this official U.S. Navy history of the project. But belatedly, Smith and his comrades are now receiving recognition, including “Native Words, Native Warriors,” a current traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution.
Here are five intriguing facts about the code-talkers:
- They were a critical part of the U.S. war effort. The Navajo code-talkers took part in every assault launched by the U.S. Marines in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. Code-talkers served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units.
- A missionary’s son came up with the idea of using Native American languages as code. Philip Johnston, a World War I combat veteran who grew on a Navajo reservation and was one of the few non-Navajos who understood the language, knew the military was searching for a code that the Japanese couldn’t break. In early 1942, he went to see Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel, commander of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and staged a demonstration that convinced Vogel to recruit 200 Navajo men as radio operators.
- Navajo might be the most nearly perfect code imaginable. It is an unwritten language with no alphabet or symbols, and it utilizes tonal qualities and syntax that make it extremely difficult for outsiders to grasp. During World War II, it was estimated that fewer than 30 non-Navajos — none of them Japanese — could understand it.
- The code-talkers used other tricks that made their messages incomprehensible even to other Navajo speakers. Even when the code-talkers translated their own words into English equivalents, there was an extra layer of encryption. Generally, the first letters of each English word combined to spell out the actual message. But the code’s developers also picked 450 Navajo words and used them to represent specific meanings that didn’t exist in the language itself. “Besh-lo,” which translates as “iron fish,” meant submarine, while “dah-he-tih-hi,” the Navajo word for “hummingbird,” denoted a fighter aircraft. Even when the Japanese tried to force a captured U.S. Army soldier who was a Navajo to translate the messages, he was unable to make sense of them.
- The code-talkers faithfully kept their secret. After the war, they went back to their old lives, and were remarkably tight-lipped about their wartime service. As Richard Mike, son of late code-talker King Mike, recently explained to the Arizona Republic, his father even declined to march in veterans’ parades, choosing instead to stand silently on the sidelines. “I used to watch him,” Mike said, “and it made me wonder: ‘Was he really in the military?’ He never told me any stories. . . . He never said anything to me.”