Stories from Iwo Jima: An unbreakable code that helped secure victory in the Pacific


Peter MacDonald Sr. is one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

On the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, he explains what made the “unbreakable” code so effective, and how it helped save lives and secure victory in the Pacific.

The U.S. Marines Corps leadership selected 29 Navajo men in May of 1942 who created a code based on the complex, unwritten Navajo language, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The code primarily used word association by assigning a Navajo word to key phrases and military tactics. This system enabled the Navajo Code Talkers to translate three lines of English in 20 seconds, not 30 minutes as was common with existing code-breaking machines.

Credit: CIA

The Code Talkers participated in every major Marine operation in the Pacific Theater, giving the Marines a critical advantage throughout the war.

During the nearly month-long battle for Iwo Jima, for example, six Navajo Code Talker Marines successfully transmitted more than 800 messages without error.

Marine leadership noted after the battle that the Code Talkers were critical to the victory at Iwo Jima. During the course of the war, about 400 Navajos participated in the code talker program.

World War II wasn’t the first time a Native American language was used to create a code. During World War I, the Choctaw language was used in the transmission of secret tactical messages. It was instrumental in a successful surprise attack against the Germans.

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