The Marines and the Navajos

Veterans Corner

IRON MOUNTAIN — As we look back at this month in history, we remember VJ Day with the Japanese accepting the Allied terms of surrender in World War II and Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Atlantic Charter of War, which outlined the postwar goals.

One important group of people who sometimes forgotten for the major role they played in the winning of World War II are the Navajos.

In the early part of 1942, during World War II the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, attacked the Philippines and Guam and were crippling the French and British forces. It looked like the Allies were going to lose the fight. One of the biggest problems for the military was a secure communication system. Time and again the Japanese were able to break the secure codes. They would learn about the battle plans in advance and be prepared for them, which left the Allies with devastating losses.

All efforts were used to protect the communications. However, there seemed to be no defense against the Japanese code-breaking wizards. There seemed to be no code that they could not break. That is until, a civil engineer by the name of Philip Johnson read an article about military security and came up with an idea. An idea he thought would help the military with their secure communication system and keep the Japanese from breaking the codes.

What was his idea? It just so happened that Johnson had been raised by his missionary family on a Navajo Reservation. He had grown up speaking Navajo, a language unique to the reservation dwellers that because of its complex structure was rarely used anywhere else. The language was so little used that it did not have a written form and fewer than 30 people outside the reservation could speak or understand the language. His idea was to use the Navajo language as a secret code. With his idea in mind, he went to visit the Marine Corps Camp Elliott near San Diego. Johnson presented his idea to the Signal Corp Communications Officer and was persuaded to test the idea.

By April 1942, the Marines were recruiting the Navajo on the reservation for enlistment into the service and training in military coding. The Navajo, working with the Marines, devised a unique coding system to be used. The Navajo attended training and served with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific and with Marine Raider and parachute units. By 1945, the Marines had graduated 421 “code talkers.” They were well respected for their work ethic and knowledge of scouting and tracking skills and ability to withstand the hardships of war.

It has been said that had it not been for the Navajo code talkers, the Marines would not have been able to take Iwo Jima. The Navajo code was used to direct the entire operation on Iwo Jima. There were six Navajo radio networks working around the clock during the two days of heavy battle that followed the initial landing. These Navajo code talkers sent and received more than 800 messages without any errors.

The code talkers, whose skill and courage saved both American lives and military engagements from detection, are now honored with a Navajo code talker exhibit that is a regular stop on the Pentagon tour. There also are several museums in Arizona and New Mexico devoted to the Navajo code talkers.

This Month in History

Aug. 2, 1943 — World War II: Motor torpedo boat PT-109 is rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri and sinks. Lt. John F. Kennedy, future U.S. President, saves all but two of his crew members. He suffered with back issues for the rest of his life.

Aug. 2, 1964 — Vietnam War: Gulf of Tonkin incident-North Vietnamese gunboats allegedly fire on the U.S. destroyers USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy.

Aug. 2, 1990 — Iraq: Iraq invades Kuwait, initiating Operation Desert Shield which became Desert Storm on Jan. 17, 1991, when it became clear he would not leave.

Aug. 6, 1945 — World War II: Hiroshima, Japan, is devastated when the atomic bomb “Little Boy” is dropped by the United States. About 70,000 people are killed instantly and tens of thousands die in later years from burns and radiation poisoning.

Aug. 7, 1782– American Revolution: Purple Heart Day, General George Washington authorizes the award for soldiers as an award for military merit. Only three were given out at the time.

Aug. 8, 1990 — Gulf War: Iraq occupies Kuwait and the state is annexed to Iraq.

Aug.10, 1961 — Vietnam: first use of Agent Orange by the U.S. Army, this would lead to thousands of Vietnam veterans suffering multiple medical issues that the VA would have to make compensation awards payable.

Aug. 14-15, 1945 — World War II: Japan accepts surrender and Churchill and Roosevelt sign the Atlantic Charter of war stating postwar aims.


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