Remembering WWII’s Navajo Code Talkers

By John Moore | October 10, 2023

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A Navajo Code Talker veteran explains how the alphabet was used to form a code during World War II.

Last November, the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory honored Native American Heritage Month with a look back at the incredible history of the Navajo Code Talkers—a group of Native American Marines 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 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. “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 2022, 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.

Native Americans and World War II

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Program from a June 15, 1990, U.S. Marine Corps Navajo Code Talkers of World War II event sponsored by Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The idea of using Native American languages 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 languages on the battlefield. They were only speaking in 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), 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 reservations. 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 as a translator of the Navajo language. With the United States at war, using 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 thereafter, 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, they established 211 keywords, taking common military English words like “tank” or “dive bomber” and translating them into Navajo. However, many such words did not have a clear counterpart in the Navajo language. 

To solve this, the Navajo Marines translated the English words 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 spell out the word using a phonetic system of representative words for each letter that could be translated back and forth from English to Navajo (see table for some examples).

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Pictured standing side-by-side with their father and siblings, Merril and Samuel Sandoval were both Navajo Code Talkers during World War II. (Source:

Unbreakable communications

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At the June 15, 1990, event in Los Alamos, Navajo Code Talker veterans demonstrate how the Navajo code was used on the battlefields of the Pacific.

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. To send a message, one Navajo Marine would translate the message and the second would send it over the radio. When receiving a message, 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 theater 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 orders 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 Code Talkers for transferring messages in combat.


LetterEnglishNavajo Code Word