Allen Dale June died Wednesday at the age of 91. June was one of the original “Code Talkers,” 29 members of the Navajo Nation selected by the United States Military to confound the Japanese during World War II by transmitting coded messages in a shorthand based upon the Navajo Language.
The Code Talkers were invaluable in assisting U.S. Marines in the Pacific by sending thousands of messages on Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics and communications.
With June’s death, only two of the original 29 are still living.
Because of Navajo’s complex grammar, it is not mutually intelligible with even its closest relatives in the same linguistic family (the Na-Dene group of languages). At the time of the war, the Navajo Language was spoken exclusively on Navajo tribal lands in the Southwestern United States. It has a unique syntax and tone, and unless a person grew up with extensive exposure to it, it is all but unintelligible. It is estimated, in fact, that during the War less than 30 non-Navajos were able to understand it.
The code itself was not strictly Navajo, but was based on Navajo and modeled after a military phonetic alphabet in use at the time. Rather than spelling out words letter by letter, it employed terms, concepts and tactics.
For example, the Navajo word for “potato” became a euphanism for hand grenade, an “ink stick” was a pen, and “gofasters” were running shoes. June and the other Code Talkers became so adept at sending error-free, coded messages that even native Navajo speakers who did not study the code could not understand them.
How effective were they? The military summed up the impact of the Code talkers this way: “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”