Ancient Technologies

When they Went to War

Wayne Thalls, KB6KN

An unusual bit of radio communications history came to mind during a tour of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico--a spread larger than the state of West Virginia.

We were deep within the Navajo nation, in Canyon de Chelly. This twenty mile long gash in the earth has been occupied by various cultures for at least, 2,000 years. The ruins of ancient cliff dwellings dot the canyon walls. The Navajo still farm there--raising corn and grazing sheep and goats--much as their ancestors did centuries ago.

We traversed the canyon in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Our Navajo driver and guide periodically reported our progress via two-way radio, always in the Navajo tongue. We of course had no idea what he said.

Radio Becomes Vital Military Tool

The relatively new art of radio communication played a limited, but important, role during World War 1. The telephone was more widely used for battlefield communications.

A few men from the Choctaw, Chippewa, and Comanche tribes were assigned to the US Army in Europe. Their field-telephone conversations proved difficult for German wire-tappers to understand.

In contrast, during the second World War radio was integral to all military operations--ground, sea, and air. Both sides found their communications were highly vulnerable to interception. Each was successfully breaking the other's codes. The US searched frantically for a new unbreakable super code.

During the twenties and thirties, many German students had studied the American Indians--even learning their languages. They did not, however, penetrate the Navajo Tribe. In 1940 the Navajos were so isolated and their language so difficult it is estimated that fewer than thirty people outside the tribe knew their language.

The isolated nature of the Navajo homeland has enabled them to retain much of their culture. There was no written language. They resisted the white man's century long efforts to force them to embrace the English language.

The Navajo language is nearly impossible for an adult to master. Every syllable means something and must be pronounced correctly. Words have multiple meanings determined by voice tone. Suble differences in tone completely change the meaning of a sentence. A knowledge of other Native American languages is not help in understanding Navajo.


Philip Johnson, a civil engineer employed by the city of Los Angeles, grew up on the Navajo reservation where his parents were missionaries. His only playmates were Navajo children. He learned their language. Johnson believed the language would be ideal for sending secret voice messages.

Johnson , a World War 1 veteran, presented his scheme to the Marine Corps. There was considerable skepticism. Approval was eventually given for a limited trial. Johnson was given responsibility for organizing the effort.

Marine recruiters went to the Navajo reservation. They found relatively few of the military-eligible men to be sufficiently proficient in English. A small group was finally chosen and sent to California for training. In addition to military training they were sent to radio operator school and taught the Morse code and the essentials of radio technology.

Some of the recruits were put to work developing a cryptographic code. Navajo words were substituted for hundreds of military terms. The resulting code proved to be unbreakable.

Eventually more that 400 Navajo Code Talkers served in the Pacific Theatre with Marine units. They participated in numerous key battles and maneuvers, including Saipan, Guadacanal, and Iwo Jima. Their strange messages were unintelligible to most of the American troops, and undecipherable by the Japanes as well.

The Marine Corps considered the Code Talkers such a valuable resource that they assigned bodyguards to protect them from capture by the Japanese. The guards had standing orders to kill the Code Talker rather than risk compromising the code. This never became necessary.

On the European Front

Even though the benefit of utilizing the language skills of the Native Americans had been proved during World War 1,  the Army Signal Corps used a total of just17 Comanches in the European Theatre. Ironically the success of the Allied campaign against the Axis has been attributed in large part to the breaking of the German secret codes by the British.

c 1993

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