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1892: Birth of Philip Johnston - whose idea to use the Navajo language as a code during WWII would save countless lives.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

17 September 1892: Birth of Philip Johnston, man behind the proposal to use the Navajo language as a code in WWII.

From a very early age, Philip Johnston fell in love with the Navajo language and by the age of five he had learned the language well enough to serve as a translator for his missionary parents. At nine he served as translator for a Navajo delegation that went to Washington, DC to lobby for Indian rights.

Johnston served in WWI during which American Indians, primarily Choctaw Indians, were used as code talkers with positive results. However, after the war, it was determined that the codes and languages of the Indians had been compromised and that the idea was no longer of any use. However, Johnston knew the Navajo language was unique and persisted in his efforts to persuade the U.S. Marine Corps to utilize the Navajo language to provide unprecedented security and to protect military communications.

The Marine Corps conducted a test of the project at Camp Elliot in California and the results were impressive. Only 30 Navajo men were approved for the first group, but by VJ Day, more than 400 Navajos would work in the program. Despite his age (in his 50s), Johnston wanted to be involved with the project and assist with training. Thus, the Marine Corps allowed him to enlist at the rank of Staff Sergeant.

Some may have thought the language itself would provide enough security, but the Marine Corps decided to make the code virtually unbreakable by further encoding the language with word substitution. The code was then committed to memory. The training was intense and resulted in a code that was undecipherable to anyone but the Code Talkers.

Although 13 never returned from the war, the brave Code Talkers who lived had the privilege of knowing that they played an indispensable role in protecting critical information from the enemy and in saving countless lives.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared August 14th "National Navajo Code Talker Day" to honor their service to the nation. In 2013, the Native American Code Talkers were inducted (as a group) into the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor.

But today we remember Philip Johnston, whose dedication and determination to his idea of using the Navajo language as a code language, helped to save the lives of countless U.S. marines.

See the link below for an NSA pdf brochure about Philip Johnston and the Navajo Code Talkers.


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