two Navajo soldiers talk into a radio

Word Warriors  
Navajo soldiers created a secret code using their native language. 

Illustration by Randy Pollak

CCSS

R.1, R.2, R.3, R.4, R.6, R.7, W.2, SL.1, L.4, L.6

Unbreakable

The incredible true story of the Navajo code talkers, the top-secret heroes of World War II 

Before You Read: Check out our Background Builder slideshow

 

Jim McMahon/Mapman ®

    Chester Nez had never been so scared in his life. He was nearly 7,000 miles from home. It was pouring rain. Bullets zipped over his head. Bombs shook the ground nearby.

    Welcome to Guadalcanal. It’s just a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. But on November 5, 1942, it was the most important place on Earth. The U.S. Marines were battling the Japanese in World War II (1939-1945). And Nez had a job to do.

    Chester Nez was scared. He was nearly 7,000 miles from home. It was pouring rain. Bullets flew over his head. Bombs shook the ground.  

    Welcome to Guadalcanal. It’s an island in the Pacific Ocean. And on November 5, 1942, it was the most important place on Earth. The U.S. Marines were fighting the Japanese in World War II (1939-1945). And Nez had a job to do.

    Chester Nez had never been so scared in his life. He was nearly 7,000 miles from home. It was pouring rain. Bullets zipped over his head, and bombs shook the ground nearby. 

    Welcome to Guadalcanal. It’s just a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean—but on November 5, 1942, it was the most important place on Earth. The U.S. Marines were battling the Japanese in World War II (1939-1945), and Nez had an important job to do.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Brian Leddy

Chester Nez

    In the light of day, Nez and his partner, Roy Begay, set up their 30-pound radio. This was the moment they had trained for. They were members of the Navajo Nation, a Native American tribe in the Southwestern United States. And they had created a top-secret code out of their native language. Finally, they were putting it to use. 

    Nez was nervous. He had to call in the location of some Japanese troops. One mistake could be deadly. The American guns might fire at the wrong location. They could miss the enemy and wipe out their own soldiers.

    Nez and Begay huddled around the radio. Then Nez picked up the microphone and got ready to transmit.

    Nez and his partner, Roy Begay, set up their radio. They were members of the Navajo Nation, a Native American tribe in the Southwestern United States. They had made a secret code from their native language. Finally, they were using it.

    Nez was nervous. He had to call in the location of some Japanese troops. One mistake could be deadly. The American guns might fire at the wrong location. They could miss the enemy and kill their own soldiers.

    Nez got ready to transmit.

    In the light of day, Nez and his partner, Roy Begay, set up their 30-pound radio. This was the moment they had trained for. They were members of the Navajo Nation, a Native American tribe in the Southwestern United States, and they had created a top-secret code out of their native language. Finally, they were putting it to use.

    Nez was nervous. He had to call in the location of some Japanese troops. One mistake could be deadly. The American guns might fire at the wrong location, missing the enemy and wiping out their own soldiers.

    Huddled around the radio with Begay, Nez picked up the microphone and got ready to transmit.

Joining the Fight

    Just seven months earlier, Chester Nez was finishing high school in Arizona. World War II— the deadliest war in history—was spreading around the globe. For the United States, the news was not good. Japanese troops had taken over much of the Pacific Ocean. American troops were battling to win it back.

    Nez wanted to join the fight. And in April 1942, he got his chance. The Marines wanted 30 Navajo men for a top-secret project. Dozens showed up to be interviewed for the job. A couple of weeks later, Nez was packing his bags for boot camp.

    Seven months earlier, Nez was finishing high school in Arizona. World War II—the deadliest war in history—was spreading around the globe. For the United States, the news was not good. Japanese troops had taken over much of the Pacific Ocean. American troops were fighting to win it back.

    Nez wanted to help. In April 1942, he got his chance. The Marines wanted 30 Navajo men for a secret project. Dozens applied for the job. Soon Nez was headed for boot camp.

    Only seven months earlier, Chester Nez was finishing high school in Arizona. World War II        —the deadliest war in history—was spreading around the globe. For the United States, the news wasn’t good. Japanese troops had taken over much of the Pacific Ocean. American troops were battling to win it back.

    Nez wanted to join the fight—and in April 1942, he got his opportunity. The Marines wanted 30 Navajo men for a top-secret project. Dozens showed up to be interviewed for the job. A couple of weeks later, Nez was packing his bags for boot camp.

Ulli Steltzer/Courtesy Princeton University Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (Sheep); © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY (Blanket)

Important Traditions  
For centuries, the Navajo have lived on land near where the corners of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado meet. They began herding sheep in the 1600s and are known for weaving beautiful wool blankets. 

Cruel History

    Chester Nez was proud to be a Marine. But he was also proud to be Navajo—or Diné [dih-NEH] in his native language. This made serving in the military complicated. His people had a long history of conflict with the U.S. government. 

    For centuries, the Diné had herded sheep and goats in the Southwest. But in the 1860s, U.S. troops forced them off their land. Nez’s ancestors were confined to a dry strip of land in New Mexico. There were no trees for firewood. Crops wouldn’t grow. Hundreds of people died before they were allowed to return to their land. 

    Four years later, the Diné got their homeland back. But they weren’t truly free. Even in 1942, they couldn’t vote in the states where they lived. Many kids had to go to boarding schools run by the U.S. government. At those schools, students couldn’t use their Diné names. Their hair was cut short. When Nez was caught speaking his native language, his mouth was washed out with soap.

    Nez was proud to be a Marine. But he was also proud to be Navajo—or Diné [dih-NEH] in his native language. This made serving in the military complicated. His people had a history of conflict with the U.S. government.

    For centuries, the Diné herded sheep and goats in the Southwest. But in the 1860s, U.S. troops forced them off their land. Nez’s ancestors were confined to a strip of land in New Mexico. There were no trees for firewood. Crops wouldn’t grow. Many people died.

    Four years later, the Diné got their homeland back. But they weren’t truly free. Even in 1942, they couldn’t vote in the states where they lived. Many kids had to go to boarding schools run by the U.S. government. At those schools, students couldn’t use their Diné names. Their hair was cut short. They couldn’t speak their native languages.

    Chester Nez was proud to be a Marine, but he was also proud to be Navajo—or Diné [dih-NEH] in his native language. This made serving in the military complicated. His people had a long history of conflict with the U.S. government.

    The Diné had herded sheep and goats in the Southwest for centuries—but in the 1860s, U.S. troops forced them off their land. Nez’s ancestors were confined to a dry strip of land in New Mexico where crops wouldn’t grow and there were no trees for firewood. Hundreds of people died before they were allowed to return to their land.

    Although the Diné got their homeland back four years later, they weren’t truly free. Even in 1942, they couldn’t vote in the states where they lived. Many kids had to go to boarding schools run by the U.S. government. At those schools, students had their hair cut short and weren’t allowed to use their Diné names. When Nez was caught speaking his native language at boarding school, his mouth was washed out with soap.

Sarin Images/The GRANGER Collection (Boarding School); Image courtesy of the Richard Henry Pratt Papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (Before & After)

Painful History  
Navajo kids were sent to boarding schools run by the U.S. government. These schools tried to make Native Americans more like White people. (The photos to the left show a Navajo student when he entered—and three years later.)

Secret Mission 

    Despite this ugly history, Nez still wanted to help fight the war. At boot camp, he and the other Diné trained hard for seven weeks. Finally, they learned their mission: They would create a secret code based on the Diné language.

    Really? Nez wondered. This was the same language he and his classmates had not been allowed to speak in school.

    But the idea made sense. On the battlefield, the Marines needed to send messages that the enemy could not understand. Not many non-Native people spoke Diné. The language had never been fully written down. The code would be almost impossible to break.

    In spite of this ugly history, Nez wanted to help fight the war. At boot camp, he and the other Diné trained hard for weeks. Finally, they learned their mission: They would make a code based on the Diné language.

    Really? Nez wondered. The same language he had not been allowed to speak in school?

    It made sense. The Marines needed to send messages that the enemy couldn’t understand. Few non-Native people spoke Diné. The language had never been fully written down. The code would be hard to break.

    Despite this ugly history, Nez still wanted to help fight the war. At boot camp, he and the other Diné trained hard for seven weeks. Finally, they learned their mission: to create a secret code based on the Diné language.

    Really? Nez wondered. This was the same language he and his classmates had been forbidden to speak in school.

    But the idea made sense. On the battlefield, the Marines needed to send messages that the enemy couldn’t understand. Not many non-Native people spoke Diné, and the language had never been completely written down—so the code would be practically impossible to break.

The Granger Collection

Reporting for Duty  
The U.S. Marines asked Navajo men to join a special project during World War II (1939-1945). Their job was to create a secret code from their native language.

Building the Code

    For weeks, Nez and the others worked on inventing the code. First, they picked words that would stand in for letters of the alphabet. “A” would be the Diné word for ant: wol-la-chee. “B” was the word for bear: shush

    Next they came up with Diné words for common military terms. A tank became a turtle: chay-da-gahi. Battleships were whales: lo-tso

    When the code was set, they studied. Day after day, they quizzed each other. They practiced sending messages and decoding them. They earned the name “code talkers.”

    In late September, they were ready. The group left for the Pacific. Nez and the other code talkers were going to war.

    Nez and the others worked to invent the code. It took weeks. First, they picked words that would stand in for letters of the alphabet. “A” was the Diné word for ant: wol-la-chee. “B” was the word for bear: shush.

    Next they chose Diné words for common military terms. A tank became a turtle: chay-da-gahi. Battleships were whales: lo-tso.

    When the code was set, they studied. They quizzed each other. They practiced sending and decoding messages. They earned the name “code talkers.”

    In late September, they were ready. The code talkers went to war.

    For weeks, Nez and the others worked on inventing the code. First, they selected words that would stand in for letters of the alphabet. “A” would be the Diné word for ant: wol-la-chee, and “B” was the word for bear: shush.

    Next they came up with Diné words for common military terms. A tank became a turtle: chay-da-gahi, and battleships were whales: lo-tso.

    When the code was set, they studied. They quizzed each other repeatedly, and they practiced sending messages and decoding them. They earned the name “code talkers.”

    In late September, when they were finally ready, the group set out for the Pacific. Nez and the other code talkers were going to war.


Jim McMahon/Mapman ®

The War in the Pacific  
The Navajo code talkers helped battle the Japanese during World War II. The U.S. and its allies (other countries that sent troops to help) fought their way north from Guadalcanal to Okinawa.  

In the Battlefield

    Five weeks later, Nez and Begay were huddled in a ditch on Guadalcanal. Machine-gun fire rattled around them. 

    They cranked up the radio and sent their first message: “Enemy machine-gun nest on your right flank. Destroy.”

    A minute later, the big guns roared to life. The Japanese machine guns fell silent.

    “You see that?” Nez said.

    “Sure did,” said Begay.

    For a moment, Nez forgot about the rain and the bullets. Code talking was what he had trained to do. And he’d done it perfectly.

    Five weeks later, Nez and Begay were on Guadalcanal. They sent a message: “Enemy machine-gun nest on your right flank. Destroy.”

    A minute later, the big guns roared to life. The Japanese machine guns fell silent.

    “You see that?” Nez said.

    “Sure did,” said Begay.

    For a moment, Nez forgot about the rain and bullets. He felt proud. He had done his job.

    Five weeks later, Nez and Begay were huddled in a ditch on Guadalcanal. Machine-gun fire rattled around them.

    They cranked up the radio and sent their first message: “Enemy machine-gun nest on your right flank. Destroy.”

    A minute later, the big guns roared to life. The Japanese machine guns fell silent.

    “You see that?” Nez asked.

    “Sure did,” Begay replied.

    For a brief, triumphant moment, Nez forgot about the rain and the bullets. Code talking was what he had trained to do, and he’d done it perfectly.

Shutterstock.com

The Secret Code

Military Term: tank
Code Word in English: turtle
Code Word in Diné: chay-da-gahi

Military Term: battleship
Code Word in English: whale
Code Word in Diné: lo-tso

Military Term: fighter plane
Code Word in English: hummingbird
Code Word in Diné: da-he-tih-hi

Military Term: bombs
Code Word in English: eggs
Code Word in Diné: a-ye-shi

Military Term: tank
Code Word in English: turtle
Code Word in Diné: chay-da-gahi

Military Term: battleship
Code Word in English: whale
Code Word in Diné: lo-tso

Military Term: fighter plane
Code Word in English: hummingbird
Code Word in Diné: da-he-tih-hi

Military Term: bombs
Code Word in English: eggs
Code Word in Diné: a-ye-shi

Military Term: tank
Code Word in English: turtle
Code Word in Diné: chay-da-gahi

Military Term: battleship
Code Word in English: whale
Code Word in Diné: lo-tso

Military Term: fighter plane
Code Word in English: hummingbird
Code Word in Diné: da-he-tih-hi

Military Term: bombs
Code Word in English: eggs
Code Word in Diné: a-ye-shi

Code Talking

    For the next two-and-a-half years, American soldiers fought their way north. The code talkers were there—about 420 of them. 

    They called for medical help and supplies. They kept track of enemy positions. They warned officers of surprise attacks. The code talkers worked fast. They rarely made a mistake. And the code was never broken.

    The Japanese surrendered—or gave up—in August 1945. The war was finally over. The U.S. and its allies had won. And the Diné code talkers were a big reason why.

    For the next two-and-a-half years, American soldiers fought their way north. About 420 code talkers were there to help.

    They called for medical help and supplies. They kept track of enemy positions. They warned officers of surprise attacks. The code talkers worked fast. They rarely made a mistake. And the code was never broken.

    The war ended in 1945. The U.S. and its allies had won.

    For the next two-and-a-half years, American soldiers battled their way north. About 420 code talkers aided in the effort, calling for medical help and supplies, keeping track of enemy positions, and warning officers of surprise attacks. The code talkers’ work was fast and practically flawless, and the code was never broken.

    The Japanese surrendered—or gave up—in August 1945. The war was finally over. The U.S. and its allies had won, and the Diné code talkers had played a critical role in the victory.

Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal/AP Images (Chester Nez); MIKE THEILER/AFP via Getty Images (George Bush)

Remembering a Hero  
Chester Nez died in 2014 at 93. He was the last living member of the 29 original code talkers. In 2001, they were given a special award by President George W. Bush.

Coming Home

    After the war, Nez returned to the U.S. But it took a while for life to return to normal.

    Like many soldiers, Nez had bad dreams about the war. And he couldn’t tell anyone what he had done. The code might be used again. So the code talkers were ordered to remain silent.

    The story finally came out in 1969. The Marines honored the code talkers at an event in Chicago. Americans realized how important the Diné—and their language—had been.

    As for Nez, the nightmares faded. But the pride remained. “I had been respected and treated as an equal,” he said. And, like his ancestors before him, he had survived. 

    After the war, Nez returned to the U.S. But it took a while for life to return to normal.

    Nez had bad dreams about the war. And he couldn’t tell anyone what he had done. The code might be used again. So the code talkers were told to stay silent.

    In 1969, the story came out. The Marines honored the code talkers at an event in Chicago. 

    Nez felt proud. “I had been respected and treated as an equal,” he said. And, like his ancestors before him, he had survived.