'Dibah, No-da-ih, Gah, Tkin, Shush, Wol-la-chee, Moasi, Lin, Yeh-hes." That's how United States Marine "code talkers" relayed the message that the US flag had been raised on Mt. Suribachi during the crucial battle for Iwo Jima in World War II. The Navajo words are translated "Sheep-Ute-rabbit-ice-bear-ant-cat-horse-itch." The first letters of each word in English spell out "Suribachi." The Navajo code is the most famous unbroken code in the history of secrecy.
Why wasn't the code ever broken? The Navajo language has no definite rules and a tone that is guttural. The language was unwritten at the time, notes Carl Gorman, one of the 29 original Navajo code talkers. "You had to base it solely on the sounds you were hearing," he says. "This made it very difficult for others to understand."
The Japanese were master codebreakers. English-speaking Japanese soldiers even sent out bogus messages in American code to lure marines into ambushes. Philip Johnston, a civilian who had lived near the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, suggested to the Marines that a code based on the Navajo language would be difficult to break. He was right.
The code became the main method of secret radio communications during pivotal battles in the Pacific. Navajos based on ships and on shore could talk to each other quickly and accurately. After the war, all the Navajo code books were burned, and the secret of the "code talkers" was hidden for 25 years. The world didn't hear about the Navajo code until 1969.
"We weren't allowed to tell our kids about our role in the war," says Sam Billison, president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association. "During training, we weren't even allowed to take notes." Why? Such was the success of the Navajo code that the Marines wanted to be able to use it again, if needed.
No one can say if the code was ever used again, Mr. Gorman says. "We were all sworn to secrecy."
The 400 native American "code talkers" used two kinds of code. Besides using Navajo words that, in translation, spelled out English ones, they also used a code shorthand. Here is a list of some of those code terms, with the Navajo pronunciation and meaning. (The list is from a children's book, "The Unbreakable Code," by Sara Hoagland Hunter, Northland Publishing, 1996.)
America: Ne-he-mah, our mother.
Major general: So-na-kih, two stars.
Torpedo plane: Tas-chizzie, swallow.
Fighter plane: Da-he-tih-hi, hummingbird.
Transport plane: Astah, eagle.
Battleship: Lo-tso, whale.
Aircraft carrier: Tsidi-ney-ye-hi, bird carrier.
Submarine: Besh-lo, iron fish.
Mine sweeper: Cha, beaver.
Destroyer: Ca-lo, shark.
Cruiser: Lo-tso-yazzie, small whale.
Tank: Chay-da-gahi, tortoise.
Grenade: Ni-ma-si, potatoes.
Bomb: A-ye-shi, egg.
Bulldozer: Dola-alth-whosh, bull sleep.
Route: Gah-bih-tkeen, rabbit trail.
Fortification: Ah-na-sozi, cliff dwelling.
For more information about the code talkers, write to: Dr. Sam Billison, President, Navajo Code Talkers Association, P.O. Box 1182, Window Rock, AZ 86515.