By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
One of the last Navajo Code Talkers who served in World War II died May 10, at the age of 97, NPR reported. Fleming Begaye, Sr., communicated secret messages in the Navajo language via radio for the U.S. Marine Corps. He was one of 400 heroes who did so. Learn their stories here.
Fleming Begaye, Sr., served from 1943 to 1945, according to the NPR article. The program in World War II that employed 400 Navajo Code Talkers was instrumental in the American war effort in the Pacific. American Indians in the Marine Corp delivered vital intelligence by speaking encrypted messages over the radio in Navajo—a code that was never broken. The Navajo Code Talker program was one of many fascinating initiatives of the military during World War II.
Origins of the Code Talker Program
“The idea to use Navajo cryptographically was first conceived by Philip Johnston,” said Dr. Daniel M. Cobb, Associate Professor of American Studies at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “A non-Indian, he had gained an appreciation for the complexity of the language as the son of missionaries in the Southwest. In the spring of 1942, 29 Navajo men were recruited to devise a way to send and receive coded messages during combat.”
This was just a year before Begaye joined the program. The first step after recruitment was for the Marines to devise a list of words in English that would need to be codified. Of course, the only words to be considered were words vital to military operation. According to Dr. Cobb, the initial list was 200 words, including terms like attack, bomber, observation plane, dive-bomber, and fighter plane. Once the list was compiled, rather than obtaining direct or even approximate Navajo translation, all members of the program sat and chose a word to associate with each term and translate that corresponding word to Navajo. “For bomber, they came up with buzzard,” Dr. Cobb said. “For observation plane, they decided upon owl. For dive-bomber, they opted for chicken hawk.”
The list expanded far beyond air operations, as well. “Battleships became whales, submarines became iron fishes, destroyers became sharks, and tanks were transformed into turtles.”
Code Talking – From Strategy to Execution
The initial test of the Navajo Code Talker program ran in October and November of 1942 at Guadalcanal, with well-known Code Talker Chester Nez. “Chester Nez considered November 4, 1942, to be the most terrifying day of his life,” Dr. Cobb said. “Nez waded through chest-deep water, past the floating dead bodies of American and Japanese soldiers, and onto the beach. To get there, he had to violate Navajo taboos against coming into contact with the dead; eventually, he and his fellow radio operator set up along a tree line to begin transmitting coded messages.”
Not only was the program successful, but it also became vital to the entire Pacific campaign. The NPR article said that Begaye participated in the Battle of Tarawa and the Battle of Tianin before spending a year in the naval hospital recovering from combat wounds. During World War II, Navajo Code Talkers aided land missions, underwater demolition, and air reconnaissance.
“During the first 48 hours after landing at Iwo Jima in February 1945, Code Talkers sent and received over 800 messages without error,” Dr. Cobb said.
Dr. Daniel Cobb contributed to this article. Dr. Cobb is an Associate Professor of American Studies at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He achieved a B.A. in History with a Sociology minor from Messiah College, where he graduated cum laude; a M.A. in History from the University of Wyoming; and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Oklahoma.