How the Navajo People Aided Marines In Battle

During World War II, a group of twenty-nine Navajo code talkers were recruited to create an unbreakable code for the military. This code, based on the Navajo language, was designed to be completely unfamiliar to anyone who spoke Navajo. Each letter of the English alphabet was matched with a Navajo word, and additional code words were created for planes, ships, and weapons. With this unbreakable code, the Navajo marines were able to perfectly transmit classified messages much faster than other forms of code.

Examples of Navajo Code

Below are some examples of Navajo code words.

  • Fighter plane – hummingbird
  • Dive bomber – chicken hawk
  • Tank – turtle 

View more examples of Navajo code.

Who came up with the idea of using Navajo code talkers? 

Philip Johnston was the son of a missionary who visited the Navajo tribe. Philip Johnston knew that Navajo was an unwritten language with unique sounding words. Johnston also knew that Navajo people were educated because of government-established boarding schools on Native American reservations. Many Navajos spoke the oral language and could also read and write in English. The code was unbreakable and difficult to decode by enemy soldiers because the Navajo words did not have a written form. 

How did the Navajo Code Talkers start?

Johnston gathered up three Navajos he knew in Los Angeles, and a fourth who was already serving in the Navy in San Diego, California. After the first test of transmitting code with the Navajo language in Camp Elliott, California, the Marines began recruiting Navajos for the code talker program.

Battle of Iwo Jima

Iwo Jima, meaning “Sulfur Island” is a small island with black, ashy, volcanic beaches.  Iwo Jima the largest of all the volcanic islands archipelago near Japan. In 1891, Iwo Jima was claimed by Japan after many Japanese fishermen and miners visited the island

Iwo Jima later became an important military stronghold during World War II. The Battle of Iwo Jima took place on February 19, 1945 between the U.S. Marines and Japanese soldiers. A very famous photograph of U.S. Marines hoisting a U.S. flag was taken by a photographer named Joe Rosenthal.

Today, Iwo Jima is a part of Tokyo, Japan, but can only be visited with permission by the U.S. military. 


In the early days, Navajo Code talkers could earn normal military awards like Purple Hearts, Silver Stars, Good Conduct Medals, etc. Navajo Code Talkers could not receive any special awards for their special bravery and contributions to World War II because the code was a classified military secret. 

Navajo Code Talkers who were discharged, such as Chester Nez, were told not to talk about the code. Chester Nez was eighteen when he decided to join the marines and serve as a Navajo Code Talker. Chester Nez was lucky to survive until the program was declassified in 1968. 

Many Navajo Code Talkers never received the recognition they deserved because they passed away before the program was declassified.

U.S. Congressional Medals

Navajo Code Talkers were recognized for their bravery and contributions in 2000 when U.S Congress awarded special gold and silver Congressional medals. The gold medals were given to the original 29 code talkers.

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Members of the 3rd and 4th Division Navajo code talker platoons of World War II, dressed in their unit’s uniform, pose for a group photo during a commemoration of the landing on Iwo Jima.

Navajo Code Talkers Day

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan enacted August 14th as Navajo Code Talkers Day. Over 17,000 Americans wrote to the president asking for the Navajo patriots to be recognized.

G.I. Joe Navajo Code Talker

In 1999, Hasbro released a G.I. Joe Navajo code talker. The action figure speaks Navajo and English when you raise one of the arms. Some retailers online are selling the vintage toy for over a hundred dollars. (video short) – audio of Navajo Code Talker G.I. Joe.

Navajo Code Talkers at Burger King

A Burger King fast food restaurant in Kayenta, Arizona has a unique World War II exhibit focus on Navajo Code Talkers. Kayenta is a part of the Navajo Nation, located in Navajo County, Arizona. About 5,000 people live in Kayenta, at over 90% of the population is Navajo.

Famous Navajo Code Talkers

Lloyd Oliver, a Navajo Code Talker is pictured above.
Peter MacDonald was featured in several interviews with Navajo Code Talkers. Peter MacDonald’s interviews are primary source about Navajo Code Talkers.

Carl Gorman received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of New Mexico for his efforts to preserve the Navajo culture.

Jack Nez was one of the original 20 code talkers during World War II. Jack Nez’s son, Glenn Nez, went on to work for the CIA. The CIA is an agency responsible for gathering intelligence and conducting covert operations to protect national security. The story of Jack and Glenn Nez is one of the generational impact and significant contributions from the Navajo people.


During World War II, a group of Navajo code talkers created an unbreakable code based on the Navajo language. They matched each letter of the English alphabet with a Navajo word and created additional code words for planes, ships, and weapons. This code allowed the Navajo marines to transmit classified messages quickly and securely. The code talkers played a crucial role in the Battle of Iwo Jima and have been commemorated in various ways, such as through a G.I. Joe action figure and exhibits at museums. Famous Navajo code talkers include Lloyd Oliver, Peter MacDonald, Carl Gorman, and Jack Nez. Many code talkers did not receive recognition until after the program was declassified.

Classroom Resources

worksheet preview of navajo code talkers essay pdf download
geography map worksheet of iwo jima, native american reservations and other notable locations