The University of Arizona

ASM Exhibition Honors Navajo Code Talkers

The four-week display will include historic photos, maps and other memorabilia from the famed Marine Corps volunteers.

Marine Corps Navajo Code Talker
Carl Gorman on the Pacific Island of Saipan in 1944 during WWII.
(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

By Darlene Lizarraga,
Arizona State Museum
July 1, 2009

reprinted with permission from UA NewsOpens in a new window

The Arizona State Museum will open a new, temporary exhibition this month to honor Navajo Code talkers.

"Our Fathers, Our Grandfathers, Our Heroes" is a tribute to and a history of the famed Navajo Code Talkers, the World War II Marine Corps communications specialists whose messages baffled Japanese cryptographers. 

The exhibition, which runs July 17 through August 22, features more than 30 historic photographs, as well as facsimiles of original military documents from the war, a 1940s-era map of the Navajo Reservation and the now-declassified Navajo Code.  Museumgoers can also see the documentary, Navajo Code Talkers, produced for television by A&E/The History Channel.

Originally completed as an oral history project by Wingate High School students from Ft. Wingate in northern New Mexico, "Our Fathers, Our Grandfathers, Our Heroes" is produced and circulated by the Circle of Light Navajo Educational Project of Gallup, N.M., a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and inspirating Navajo youth about their history, culture and traditions.

Phillip Johnston, the son of Protestant missionaries to the Navajos and a Navajo speaker himself, is credited with the idea of a Navajo code, based on his familiarity with the language and the knowledge that Native languages had been used successfully in WWI. Johnston presented his idea to military officials at Camp Elliott, near San Diego.

Despite initial skepticism, a demonstration was presented to Major General Clayton B. Vogel, commander of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet. Impressed, Gen. Vogel sent a letter to the Marine commandant recommending the enlistment of 200 Navajos for this assignment. Permission was granted for a pilot program of only thirty. More were recruited, but only 29, all of them volunteers, were sworn in.

In May 1942, the Navajo recruits reported for basic training at the Marine Recruit Depot in San Diego. After basic training, they moved to the Camp Elliott Fleet Marine Force Training Center where they received eight weeks of communications training, in Morse code and radio operations. This is the group that developed and tested the original Navajo code of 211 words.

The recruits were tested and re-tested in their knowledge of the code and military terminology. The risk was that one poorly translated word could potentially mean disaster for U.S. forces. Proven fast and accurate, twenty-seven Navajos were first sent to Guadalcanal to use the code in actual combat. Two remained at Camp Pendleton to train new recruits. Johnston, who had himself volunteered for the pilot program, remained and eventually took over the administrative aspects of the training program.

Gorman painting

Keis-onnies, a 1966 painting by Carl Gorman.
(Image courtesy Arizona State Museum)

The code, based on the Navajo language, completely stymied the Japanese military. As a result, the Marine Corps recruited hundreds more Navajos to use the code to transmit critical messages throughout the Pacific Theater. In all, some 420 Navajo men served as code talkers. The ingenuity of the code and the valor of the Navajo Marines were key components in the effort to win the war in the Pacific.

Though the use of the Navajo language by the U.S. Marines has received the most recognition, in fact several Native languages were used during WWII by the U.S. forces, including Assiniboine, Cherokee, Chippewa/Oneida, Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Muscogee/Creek and Seminole, Pawnee, Sac and Fox/Meskwaki, and Sioux.

Native languages worked well to thwart the enemies of the United States during both world wars for two reasons. The first was they were virtually unknown, unstudied and unwritten languages. Secondly, their syntax, tonal qualities and dialects make them completely undecipherable to the untrained ear.

Among the original twenty-nine recruits was Carl N. Gorman (Navajo name Kinyeonny Beyeh, 1907-1998). Gorman saw action at Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Saipan during the war. Gorman was also a scholar, teacher, and artist.

One of his paintings, Keis-onnies, done in 1966, is in the Arizona State Museum collections.

The Carl N. Gorman Museum was founded in 1973 by the department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, in honor of Gorman's tenure on the faculty. As a founding member of the department, he was the first to teach Native American art, starting in 1969.

Gorman's daughter, Zonnie Gorman, is the program coordinator for the exhibition.

More information about Code Talkers and the exhibition

Podcast Interview with a Hero's Daughter

Podcast produced by KUAZ radioOpens in a new window

Arizona Illustrated segment on the exhibitionOpens in a new window

More resources...