November 28, 1999 - Navajo Code Talkers

INTRO: To mark Native American History Month, our Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti talk with a World War Two Navajo code talker.


RS: Before modern computer encryption, the U-S Marine Corps used a group of American Indians to talk their way past Japanese code breakers.

AA: Four-hundred Navajos served as code talkers. They used their spoken tribal language as a secret code against Japanese forces in the Pacific. The Japanese broke other American codes, but never this one.

RS: Albert Smith followed his brothers into the service in 1943. He was 15. Only he didn't tell the Marines that, because they would have told him to wait till he was 17 to enlist.

AA: During training the Marines offered Albert Smith a chance to join the Navajo code talkers. But first he had to pass a test.


SMITH: "We had so many words in English and in Navajo to memorize on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. And on Friday we were given the exam of all those words."

RS: "How did it actually work in practice? How did you actually use this code during the conflict?"

SMITH: "What they did for us to use it and to memorize it as quickly as possible is, they took the basic military vocabulary, and instead of using Able, Baker, Charlie as the alphabet, they used the plant names, animal names, fruits and clan systems."

AA: For instance, the Navajo word for "clan" was substituted for the word "corps" (C-O-R-P-S) - - as in the United States Marine Corps.


"(speaks in Navajo) That's `Code Talker 3C to Code Talker 3B, here's the message.'"


RS: The code talker receiving the message had to translate each word into English. Then he would use the first letter of that English equivalent to spell an English word.

AA: Not every word had to be spelled out. Hundreds of common military terms did not exist in Navajo language...

RS: So a submarine would become, in Navajo, an "iron fish" and a fighter plane a "hummingbird." A commanding general was a "war chief." AA: Albert Smith was one of two code talkers to go ashore for the famous Marine landing at Iwo Jima.

RS: In lectures he gives across the United States about his role in World War II, Albert Smith is frequently asked why, as a Navajo Indian, he joined the fight to protect a country with a history of oppression of Native Americans.


"My response to that is, I'm an American, native, and my way of looking at it is, I did not do it for sacraments of people, I did it for Mother Earth, because Mother Earth means everything to us, it means all the freedom people talk about, the way of life, and another foreign country wanted all that to be taken away from us, so that was my way of looking at it."

AA: Albert Smith, speaking to us from Gallup, New Mexico, where a museum honors the Navajo code talkers.

RS: To reach Avi and me, write to or VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20547 USA.

AA: And when you do, ask us any grammar questions you might have. We're planning a new monthly Wordmaster segment with an expert on English grammar who calls herself "Grammar Lady"!

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.