Remembering WWII’s Navajo Code Talkers

Honoring Native American Heritage Month with a look back on the incredible history of these Native American servicemembers

November 22, 2022


By John Moore, archivist-historian, Los Alamos National Laboratory, National Security Research Center

Every year, November is recognized as Native American Heritage Month. This year, the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory honors the occasion with a look back at the incredible history of the Navajo Code Talkers — a group of Native American servicemembers who used simple words and phrases from their unique tribal language to baffle Japanese code breakers and spur Allied victory in World War II’s Pacific theater.

Many of Los Alamos’ wartime employees came from surrounding pueblos. Native Americans were hired as technicians, researchers, machinists and more, making valuable contributions to the Manhattan Project.

While the Navajo Code Talkers did not originate from Project Y, many of them have direct connections to the modern Laboratory and are relatives of today’s staff, including Darren Harvey, whose father was a cousin of Navajo Code Talker John Goodluck.

“Many Diné [Navajo] men enlisted as they felt a strong sense of service, to be a warrior and to protect their homelands and culture,” said Harvey, who today is co-chair of the Laboratory’s American Indian Employee Resource Group (AIERG). “Unfortunately, these men came from backgrounds [schools] in which they were stripped of their language and culture, punished if they spoke Navajo. However, they developed an unbreakable code that will forever be remembered and honored, these men are cherished and are our heroes.”

Following the passing of Navajo Code Talker Samuel Sandoval in July, only three of the hundreds of original Code Talkers are still living. Sandoval died at 98 years old in Shiprock, New Mexico, and is the uncle of retired Laboratory staff member Jeannie Sandoval. Her father, Merril, was also a Navajo Code Talker; he died in 2008.

Merril and Samuel Sandoval were brothers and Navajo Code Talkers during World War II. They are pictured here with their father and siblings. Merril, who died in 2008, was the father of former Lab staff member Jeannie Sandoval. Samuel, her uncle, died in July. (Photo source:

Native Americans and World War II

The idea of using Native American language that could not be deciphered by enemy forces dates back to World War I when members of the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations transmitted messages using their native language on the battlefield. They were only speaking their native languages, not in a code. It wasn’t until World War II that a formal code using the Navajo language would be formed and successfully transmitted in combat.

Rooted in the Four Corners area (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah), history shows that the Navajo and their ancestors lived in the southwest hundreds of years before the arrival of European settlers to the Americas. Before the United States’ entrance into World War II, many of the Navajo had never left their homes on the reservation. However, this would change after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Creating a code

Philip Johnston is credited with conceiving the idea of creating a code based on the Navajo language for the war effort. Johnston grew up primarily in Arizona on the Navajo Nation with his parents, who were missionaries, according to The Navajo Code Talkers by Doris A. Paul. There, he learned the Navajo language while playing with Navajo children.

As an adult, Johnston worked translating the Navajo language. With the United States at war, the use of the language to develop a code occurred to him while reading a newspaper article about a military attempt to develop a code using some of their Native American recruits.

Shortly after, Johnston contacted the military with his idea: “My plan is not to use translations of an Indian language, but to build up a code of Indian words. Let’s imagine this code included terms such as ‘fast shooter’ to designate a machine gun, and ‘iron rain’ for a barrage. Navajo personnel would be thoroughly drilled to understand and use these substitutions.”

This idea would form the basis for the legendary Navajo Code Talkers.

The first group of Navajo Code Talkers was made up of 29 individuals who ran radios and developed the code itself, according to The Routledge Handbook of the History of Race and the American Military. Initially, 211 keywords used in a combat zone were developed. This initial project would also form an alphabet of letters and meanings that were translated both into Navajo and English.

The code took common military English words like “tank” or “dive bomber” and translated the words into Navajo. However, many of the words did not have a clear translation of the word in the Navajo language. To solve this, the Navajo Marines took the words and translated them into animals or objects. For example, “submarine” was translated into iron fish, which is Besh-Lo. For words that could not be translated, the Marines would take each letter in Navajo using a word that began with that letter in English. An example of this can be seen below:



Navajo Code Translation











Unbreakable communications

The code proved highly successful — the Japanese military was never able to break it.

In combat, the Navajo Code Talkers would work in groups of two when transmitting and receiving messages over the radio. When sending a message, one Navajo Marine would translate the message and the second would send it over the radio. When receiving the message, the roles would remain the same with the exception that the radioman would receive the code in Navajo and the second man would translate it back into English.

The Navajo code was used throughout the Pacific War in World War II from Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to Okinawa, Japan.

During the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945, Marine Maj. Howard M. Connor said, “The entire operation was directed by Navajo Code. Our corps command post was on a battleship from which order went to the three division command posts on the beachhead, and on down to the lower echelons. I was [a] signal officer of the Fifth Division. During the first 48 hours, while we were landing and consolidating our shore positions, I had six Navajo radio nets operating around the clock. In that period alone they sent and received over 800 messages without error” (The Routledge Handbook of the History of Race and the American Military).

By the end of the war in August 1945, 600 to 800 codewords had been developed by the Navajo to use when transferring messages in combat.