NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – From all across their homeland, hundreds of Native American men volunteered to become ‘Navajo Code Talkers.’ They were secret soldiers from the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico whose contributions helped win World War II by using their native language to code communication. “The greatest thing was sacrificing our lives for our country. It wasn’t just a duty; it was a responsibility,” says Roy Hawthorne, a Navajo Code Talker, “and we knew we had to defeat the enemy, or they would defeat all of us and take what we had.”

Young Navajo men were recruited to create the code, using common names in their language to describe military terms like battleships, tanks, and reconnaissance planes. Roy Hawthorne and more than 400 fellow Code Talkers volunteered. “It’s quiet, doesn’t carry any armaments, that’s a hummingbird, and so in Navajo, it was dahiitį́hii.” In battles across the pacific Code Talkers would relay thousands of messages with no errors, and the Japanese would never break their code.

The idea to use the Navajo language as a communications code in the Pacific Theater came from a military man who once lived on the reservation. He knew the Navajo language was incredibly complex and only known by a small group of people.

Hawthorne and the others had used their language as a successful weapon. A native language that was ironically often prohibited in reservation boarding schools at home, “the language was discouraged, the use of it, was discouraged,” says Hawthorne.

The role of the Code Talkers in the war was kept secret for decades. Only much later were they acknowledged, and their story was fully told. Hawthorne says, despite the hardships his native people had endured on American reservations when the war came, frustrations were set aside, “We were loyal to our country. It wasn’t because it was called America. But it was called a people that were willing to do for other people. That’s the way we treated one another.” 

Roy Hawthorne passed away in 2018. Very few of the original 400 Code Talkers are alive today. There is a big push in New Mexico to create a museum to honor these heroes. Last year the New Mexico legislator and the governor pledged more than a million dollars to start construction of the museum.