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2013 Fall Issue 8 (November 15, 2013)

Recognized Historian Zonnie Gorman Speaks About Navajo Code Talkers from WWII

November 15, 2013
By Ben Strauss

cZonnie Gorman spoke from the heart last Friday about the experiences of the Navajo code talkers and the important contribution they made to World War II that is often overlooked.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, many Navajos enlisted in the military, which was "pretty incredible," said Gorman, given the reservation’s isolation.

"The Navajo reservation back in the day," said Gorman, "was extremely remote, most people still rode horses, walked or used wagons." Her father had one of the very few Model-T Fords on their reservation.

Shocked by the Japanese attack, the United States did not have much preparation in place for the war. One of the greatest challenges the U.S. faced was that the Japanese had broken the United States’ military codes.

Phillip Johnston, the son of missionaries, spent his early years on a Navajo reservation. He read in the newspaper about the problem and read that the military had begun to consider using Indian languages in codes.

He talked to the Marines about using Navajo for the United States’ military code and provided them with a demonstration of it. The speed and accuracy of the coded messages impressed the Marines.

They decided to recruit the first thirty person platoon of code talkers, the original twenty-nine. One of the men recruited did not actually enlist in the marines but enlisted in the United States Army and fought and died in Europe.

Once they went through boot camp, the Marines told the Navajos to develop a code using their native language and gave them "a list of a little over 200 terms, military terminology, equipment, the English alphabet and a fairly large general vocabulary," said Gorman.

Thus, the Navajos had to create a code word for Germany: Besh-Be-Cha-He. The word translates to "iron hat" in English.

The Marines deployed around 400 Navajos to send coded transmissions by the end of the war. Her father served in four campaigns: Tarawa, Tinian, Guadalcanal and Saipan.

The United States government declassified the code in 1968 and the first honors for the Navajo code talkers came in 1969 from the Fourth Marine Division.

A packed audience listened intently to Gorman’s words. Many people learned something new.

"I really enjoyed Zonnie’s talk, particularly the personal approach she brought to the history of the code talkers," said Maggie Lloyd ’16

"Personally, I really enjoyed her talk," said Brianna Quincy ’16, " It really gave me cause to think about things that I haven’t really thought about before - communications, the difficulty of coding"

"During Convo lunch, I was able to talk with her...about the ways the Code Talkers inspired pride in Navajo identity within reservations and also about the future careers of the original code talkers," said Lloyd, "I was interested to hear that many of the code talkers went on to be leaders within the Navajo community."

The Navajo code talkers made an important contribution to both U.S. history and to the Navajo community. For that reason, it is important to continue to remember their stories.

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