NAVAJO CODE TALKERS were Native Americans who encoded, transmitted, and decoded messages for the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajos, broached the idea of using Navajo tribesmen to send secure communications for the marines in 1942. Johnston was aware that Native Americans, notably Choctaws, had been used by the U.S. Army in World War I to encode messages. Following successful demonstrations of the Navajos' ability to encode, transmit, and decode messages, the Marine Corps began recruiting Navajos in May 1942. The first group of twenty-nine Navajos created the Navajo code, devising a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. As they were trained, the Navajo code talkers were assigned to marine units deploying in the Pacific theater. The code talkers transmitted information on tactics, troop movements, orders, and other battlefield communications over tactical telephones and radios in their native language, a code the Japanese never broke. They served in all six marine divisions, marine raider battalions, and marine parachute units in the Pacific, taking part in every assault the marines conducted. As of 1945, about 540 Navajos had enlisted in the Marine Corps; from 375 to 420 of those were trained as code talkers. About twenty Navajos along with Native Americans from other tribes served with the army in the same capacity in Europe.
Today there are fewer than 50 living code talkers.