The sun was setting on Kayenta, AZ when I decided to join our professor, Mary Ann McGarry, to view a unique cultural and historical exhibit, displayed in the most unusual of places- the Burger King across the street from our hotel. Amidst the typical fast-food restaurant décor, in the middle of the dining room was a large glass case containing various artifacts and information on the “Code Talkers” of World War II. The term “Code Talkers” refers to the Native American soldiers who served in the United States Marine Corps whose primary job was the transmission of tactical information using a specially devised code. These men broadcasted military information via radio communications using the unique coded language derived from their native Navajo language.
The display within the large glass cases consisted of diverse pieces of historical memorabilia pertaining to these soldiers, from hand written letters to military uniforms. I was vaguely familiar with the role these soldiers played in the war from viewing the major motion picture, “Windtalkers”. Upon viewing this exhibit, I discovered how crucial these soldiers were in the United States’ success during World War II. Working around the clock during the first two days on Iwo Jima, six networks of the Navajo Codetalkers transmitted more than 800 messages without an error (5). I realized these men made a special contribution and deserve much honor, especially because recognition for their service was delayed for so long. Even after the war was long over, these men had to keep their role secret.
Code Talker Seal
During a time when the Japanese were able to break almost every American code, Philip, Johnston, the son of a missionary, presented the idea of using the Navajo language for military communication. Johnston was one of the few non-natives who knew the Navajo language as he had grown up on the reservation. After gaining approval, 29 Navajos were inducted in the United States Marine Corps to begin their training as “Codetalkers”(1). Ironically these individuals chose to fight for the well being of a government that had treated Native Americans on the reservations as “wards”, more than full fledged citizens. Now young Navajo men flocked to the opportunity to serve their country in a distinct way.
Several items in the exhibit explained the code itself, which was a deviation from the native Navajo language. Fearing the language itself could be deciphered, as complex as it was, a new code was formulated which essentially had to follow four major guidelines during its development: 1) The codes words had to have some kind of logical connection to the term to which they referred. 2) Code words had to be unusually descriptive. 3) Code words had to be short. 4) Words that could be confused with other words had to be avoided (1). A detailed, full length dictionary of this “unbreakable code” can be found at: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq61-4.htm (2). To test the quality of the newly developed code, it was presented to native Navajo speakers who were not “Codetalkers” to see if they could decipher any meaning. They were unable to do so, which marked the code a success.
Navajo Codetalker Silver Medal
I was glad to see this exhibit recognize these special American soldiers and their great contributions to the success of the United States during World War II. The recognition was a long time coming; the code talkers weren’t formally recognized until 1992 in a public ceremony in Washington, D.C. The language wasn’t declassified until 1968 according to information provided in the display (3). The secret code remained classified after World War II, as it was considered still potentially valuable.
I was surprised at the location of the exhibit- a fast food joint. But, I also recognized this meant many more people had access to the information, individuals who might not otherwise seek out a war memorial in a museum. Burger King was open seven days a week, for long hours and was already staffed. And we, people who weren’t seeking fast food, were enticed to enter a Burger King, not because of the food or restrooms, but precisely to check out the exhibit. Not surprisingly, the owner of the Burger King is Navajo and created the “museum” from items collected from his father who served as a Navajo code talker (4). There is also a Navajo “Codetalker” exhibit in the Pentagon, but how nice to have one on the Navajo Reservation. In addition to the Burger King exhibit on the Reservation, there is also a new Veterans Memorial Park near the Navajo Nation Administration Center, in Window Rock, Arizona. Both in Kayenta and Window Rock, young Navajos have the opportunity to learn about and honor the service of their forefathers who served in the U.S. military, as do others who travel to the Southwest to learn more about the culture and history of the place. Citations
Navajo Codetalker Monument in Window Rock, AZ