Code talkers

The Navaho contribution to the fight for freedom in WW2 remained secret for almost 25 years, but a fast food restaurant lets the secret out.

Travel guides rarely mention fast food restaurants. Why should they when everyone knows what to expect? They are predictable and cheap. But, alongside the route to one prime tourist site is a chain restaurant you should stop at. Kayenta Burger King is in a standard BK building and the food is their normal fare, but mounted on the walls is a display of pictures, news cuttings and narratives about a long-kept secret.

Kayenta, Arizona, is a tiny town at the intersection between highways180 and 163 close to the Utah border. Tourists on their way to Monument Valley pass through the town in droves. It is in Navaho country, and the local Burger King franchisee is a member of that proud and ancient tribe. His pride of ancestry is even greater, however, because his father was a Code Talker.

During the Second World War the opposing nations had a new technology that created both opportunity and threat. Communication was fast - faster than at any time in the history of the world - but both sides could intercept their enemies' messages without needing to catch the messenger. Radio had changed warfare. Commanders could speak direct to front-line troops; but they needed to make sure that the enemy couldn't hear their plans. The solution was to transmit radio messages in code, but any code that could be created mathematically could be cracked with maths, given time. And, even the people who knew the code needed time to create and decode the messages they were sending and receiving. The German "Enigma" code was so complex that they needed a machine to interpret it and they believed their code was unbreakable; but the English deciphered it. America looked for a better solution, and an officer called Philip Johnson suggested Navaho.

Navaho is a complex and unusual language and, whilst very much alive in Southwest USA, is virtually unknown in the rest of the world. The Japanese were unlikely to know it, so Philip Johnson's idea was given a try. It was much simpler than using conventional coding methods. They needed Navaho speakers at each end of the line to simply talk to one another. Without maths or machinery they translated the message into plain English - a second language to them, but one they understood from childhood.

More than 1,400 Navahos joined the army, navy and marines to serve in the Far East and provide their special help for the war effort. Many of them became actively engaged in the conflict but, fighting or talking, their contribution was a major factor in the course of the conflict. However, their work was secret and remained under wraps until long after the war ended. The secret was eventually revealed in 1969, after which it was possible to honour the survivors and their dead colleagues.

At the end of the war, the Code Talkers put aside their uniforms, left their military quarters and headed back to the hogans and homesteads of the Navaho reservations. They were brave men, risking everything for a nation that had not always been kind to their people. They and their families have reason to be proud of their contribution to world freedom - which is why you can see a big notice outside the Kayenta Burger King.

If you visit Monument Valley, allow yourself an extra hour to stop by at the BK on highway 163. The food is predictable and cheap, but the memory is priceless.

© Derrick Phillips - 2000