Navajo Code Talkers: The 'Miracle' That Ended World War II

By Laurel Morales
Published: Monday, June 17, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, May 1, 2020 - 11:54am

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In the late 1800s, the Navajo signed a treaty that defined their reservation. But the tribe had already established home beyond those boundaries. Still settlers tried to kick out the Navajo.

One white man stepped in to help them get their ancestral land back. And his family would go on to help the Navajo and the U.S. again in a critical way.

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Part I: The 'Understander'

William Johnston
Bernice Johnston
William Johnston stands with his two sons, David and Philip, who were both raised on the Navajo Nation.

In 1896, a missionary by the name of William Johnston moved his family from Kansas to northern Arizona. Johnston and his wife raised four children among the Navajo. Their son, Philip, learned to speak Navajo so well the tribe came to rely on him to interpret for them.

"And the word was passed around that I was the 'adeetsahe,' now that in Navajo literally means 'the understander,'" said Philip Johnston in a 1970 interview that's part of the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Project.

Philip said his father, William, felt compelled to protect the Navajo who lived in what is today Leupp about 45 miles east of Flagstaff.

"At that time they lived on what was known as public domain," Philip Johnston said. "It was a matter of first-come, first-served. So my father devoted much of his time to securing the rights of the Navajos to the lands they had long occupied."

Philip's dad, William Johnston, contacted the Indian Rights Association, a non-native social activist group, who told him to make a map of where the Navajo lived and how many generations had lived there.

Jerry Snow is a Flagstaff history buff who often adopts William Johnston's character when he gives talks about these events. He grabs a dusty brown fedora and tells of a pivotal moment for William and his son Philip.

"We headed to Washington, D.C., so when we got there we found out our appointment was with the president of the United States," Snow said in the voice of William Johnston.

In 1901, when Philip was only 9 years old, William brought him to Washington along with two Navajo men. The group took an arduous journey by train to D.C.

President William McKinley had just died and the freshly sworn in Theodore Roosevelt was trying to get up to speed. When the group arrived at the White House, Roosevelt's secretary told the weary travelers the president did not have time for them.

"I immediately stood up and said, 'Mr. Secretary, we've come 2,000 miles from Arizona territory," Snow said. "We don't have much funds to stay here very long what should we do?' He said, 'just sit down.' He disappeared. Pretty soon he came back and said, 'the president will see you now.' So we're ushered into his office!"

The Johnstons and the two Navajo men went into Roosevelt's office, and William rolled out his map. The Navajo explained how generations of their families had lived on this land, how it's Navajo tradition for a mother to bury her child's umbilical cord in the ground tying them to that land forever. Young Philip translated every word.

Philip Johnston
Bernice Johnston
Philip Johnston helped recruit Navajos for the Marines during World War II.

"A few weeks later, we got a telegram from the Indian Rights Association saying that Theodore Roosevelt had signed an executive order on Nov. 14, 1901, setting aside all that land extending the Navajo reservation," Snow said.

Years passed. Philip grew up and eventually left the reservation to serve in World War I. When he returned, he worked in Los Angeles as an engineer for several years. Then during World War II, shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Philip read an article that sparked an idea.

"Back in World War I the Canadian Army somebody said, 'we have Indians in these units," Philip Johnston said. "I wonder if we couldn't have the Indians tell in their language what we need."

So Johnston thought, why not develop a code using the Navajo language — one of the most complicated and difficult languages? He took the idea to the Navy and they sent him to the Marines in San Diego.

"The Marine Corps just thought it was almost a miracle," Johnston said.

While the Navajo Code was Johnston's idea, it was the Navajo who developed and executed the unbreakable code.

Code Talkers
Jerry Snow
Twenty-nine code talkers made it through basic training, combat training and communication training before they were told their secret mission.

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Part II: Writing The Code

Former Navajo President and code talker Peter MacDonald says in any war, the side that has the best communication has the advantage.

"And in this case the enemy, the Japanese had the advantage," MacDonald said. "Why? Because they were breaking every military code. So the enemy knew exactly what our plans are."

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Marines recruited 30 Navajo. Twenty-nine made it through boot camp and combat training. That's when they found out they were part of a special operation.

"'You're Marines now," MacDonald said. "You're ready to go fight and shoot the enemy and all that. But before you do that, we'd like for you guys to develop a military code using your language.'"

Navajo Code Talkers
The first Navajo Code Talker Marine recruits are sworn in at Fort Wingate.

For three months, the men wrote the code, tested it, then rewrote it.

"Let's call the letter A belasana. Belasana in Navajo means apple," MacDonald said. "All the way down to 'Z' — beshdoshklesh. Beshdoshklesh means zinc."

In addition to three alphabets, they came up with code for frequently used words like submarine.

"Submarine — beshlo. Beshlo in Navajo means iron fish," MacDonald said.

By the end of the war, they had more than 400 words to memorize and know under combat pressure.

MacDonald enlisted at the age of 15. He and other young Navajos were able to lie about their age, because they didn't have birth certificates.

Before he left for war, a medicine man gave him a pouch of corn pollen.

"When you're down in the foxhole with bullets flying 5-10 inches over your head, take a pinch put it on your tongue, another pinch top of your head, take another one make an offering," MacDonald said. "Course you're down there with your other buddy. He would poke you and say, 'hey chief, what are you doing?' 'I'm asking for help and protection.' He would say, 'May I have some?'"

Peter MacDonald
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
Former Code Talker and former chairman of the Navajo Nation Peter MacDonald wants to preserve his legacy for his children and grandchildren.

Peter's daughter, Charity MacDonald, sat with her father as he told his story in their home in Tuba City. She said the Navajos were made to be Marines.

"They grew up the crack of dawn they're out running," Charity MacDonald said. "They had to memorize all these prayers that could last for days."

Gary Sandoval said it was the same for his father, Code Talker Merril Sandoval.

"My dad always said it was easy to them because they grew up that way," Sandoval said. "They didn't have to sleep on a bed. We just slept on the ground sheepskin."

Sandoval said before his dad died, he told him about the battle at Iwo Jima.

"They didn't make it to shore," Sandoval said. "Their landing craft flipped over. And they lost everything but they had to swim ashore. He says that was the scariest time of his whole life. Being a Navajo, there are certain things about death we don't do, but it was all around him."

"They were just simple Navajo boys from the reservation, and they did their duty when they were asked."
— Gary Sandoval, son of Navajo Code Talker Merril Sandoval

Sandoval said his dad survived by taking weapons and ammunition from dead marines on the beach — trauma that affected him later in life.

When the men finally returned home, they went through a cleansing ceremony.

"In our language it's called nadah, Sandoval said. "And it's a seven-day ceremony. You really don't talk about it. It's just done. It's one of those things between you and the Holy People."

The Marines told Merril and the rest of the Code Talkers to keep the code secret in case they needed it again. So for more than two decades, they didn't speak of it. The military finally declassified the code in 1968. Then it wasn't until 2008 that the men received Congressional gold and silver medals.

Sandoval points to a picture of his father and his uncle, both Code Talkers, in their red and gold uniforms on the day they received those medals.

"It was a very humbling experience, made me cry seeing all the Code Talkers together. Felt like it was overdue," Sandoval said.

Today, the remaining Code Talkers want to build a museum, so their story will be remembered.

When asked how his dad wanted to be remembered, Sandoval said, "they were just simple Navajo boys from the reservation, and they did their duty when they were asked."

Peter MacDonald
Peter MacDonald
Two artists have painted Peter MacDonald. He is one of the few remaining Navajo Code Talkers.
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