One of the last remaining members of the Navajo Code Talkers, who used their difficult-to-learn language to form an indecipherable code that helped the Allies win World War II, has died.
Alfred K. Newman died Sunday in New Mexico, the Marine Corps said. He was 94.
Newman served during WWII with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, the Marines said, including at Iwo Jima, Guam and other island campaigns.
As a code talker, Newman was one of a group of Navajos who learned a secret, unbreakable language that was used to send information on tactics, troop movements and orders over the radio and telephone during WWII.
The code was indecipherable to the Japanese and a key factor in American military victories at Iwo Jima, Saipan, and several other major battles in the Pacific theater.
At Iwo Jima, code talkers passed over 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period, according to the Congressional law honoring the program.
“Were it not for the Navajos,” said Maj. Howard Connor, the signal officer of the Navajos, “the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
Three surviving Navajo Code Talkers were honored at the White House in November 2017, although the event was largely overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s attempt to insult Sen. Elizabeth Warren by dismissively calling her Pocahontas.
Prior to that comment, Trump spoke in awe on a topic he admitted he had known little about beforehand.
“I have to say, I said to Gen. (John) Kelly … I said, ‘How good were these code talkers? What was it?’ He said, ‘Sir, you have no idea. You have no idea how great they were — what they’ve done for this country, and the strength and the bravery and the love that they had for the country,'” Trump said, turning to the code talkers, “and that you have for the country.”
Navajo leaders believe there are fewer than a dozen code talkers still alive, but because the program was classified for so many years after the war, an exact tally is unknown.
How the Navajo Code Talkers came to be
The plan to use the Navajo language as a secret code began with Philip Johnston, who had spent his childhood on a Navajo reservation while his parents served as missionaries, according to the CIA.
The idea to use a Native American language as a code was not new. The US military had used the Choctaw language during World War I as part of its secret code, but Germany and Japan had worked to learn Choctaw and other Native American languages during the interwar period, the CIA said.
But the Navajo language’s syntax and linguistics are particularly tricky for non-Navajo, and it is not written. So the Marines recruited and trained 29 Navajos at Camp Elliott near San Diego beginning in 1942.
Those 29 Navajo created more than 200 new Navajo words for military terms and committed them to memory.
“I studied on my own at night,” Joe Hosteen Kellwood, one of the code talkers, said of his training. “You had to memorize all the words at the time, 211 words. They were long words. I spelled it. I learned.”
In simulated battles, the Navajo code proved much faster than the encrypting machines being used at the time. So in August 1942, 15 code talkers — just over half the recruits — joined the Marines for combat duty amid the assault on Guadalcanal.
After that first battle, Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, commander of the 1st Marine Division, sent word back to the US asking for more Navajos, according to code talker Peter MacDonald.
“This Navajo code is terrific,” Vandegrift said, according to MacDonald. “‘The enemy never understood it,’ he said. ‘We don’t understand it either, but it works. Send us some more Navajos.'”
More than 350 people had learned the code by the end of the war. None of the original 29 code talkers who invented the language are still alive. Chester Nez, the last surviving member of the original 29, died in 2014.
The program wasn’t declassified by the military until 1968, and it would take several more decades before the story received wider recognition. In 2001, President George W. Bush presented the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers with the Congressional Gold Medal.