The last of the original Navajo code talkers, Chester Nez, died at 93 on June 4. The code talkers used a code based on the Navajo language as a way of quickly and accurately transmitting information in World War II and afterward.
According to the Navy’s historical summary of the code talkers, the advantage of the Navajo code was that the Navajo language is extremely complex and is very difficult for nonspeakers to learn or understand.
Nez and 28 of his fellow Navajo soldiers built the code out of Navajo words. There were two main parts. The first component was a spelling alphabet, or set of words that would stand in for letters and allow words or acronyms to be spelled out. The second part of the code was a list of a couple of hundred commonly used words.
The entire dictionary of the Navajo code can be found at the Navy’s history website, and it’s fascinating.
The spelling alphabet was based on Navajo words whose English equivalents started with a particular letter. So the letter “a” would be represented by the Navajo words “wol-la-chee” for “ant,” “be-la-sana” for “apple,” and “tse-nill” for “ax.” Similar assignments were used for all 26 letters, allowing words to be spelled out.
There were also code words for about 450 military terms and common words. For many of these, the code word was just the Navajo equivalent. “Position” was encoded as “bilh-has-ahn,” the Navajo word for “position.”
Certain pieces of military equipment had more colourful names. Aeroplanes were assigned names of birds: Fighters were encoded as “da-he-tih-hi,” or “humming bird.” A battleship was “lo-tso,” or “whale.”
Unfortunately, some countries were assigned Navajo words whose English equivalents are uncomfortable for 21st-century sensibilities.
Some of the most interesting code words involved using Navajo words whose English equivalents sound like the intended word. “Deliver” became “be-bih-zihde,” Navajo for “deer liver.” “These” became “cha-gi-o-eh”: “the see.”
The code was amazingly effective. After the 29 original soldiers, including Nez, came up with the code, about 400 Navajos were trained as code talkers, and deployed to the Pacific theatre, where they relayed vital information quickly, accurately, and securely.
In the first two days of the Battle of Iwo Jima, 800 messages were sent and received among six code talkers.
Japan was never able to decipher the code, making it an amazingly useful tool in the war.
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