Cpl. Henry Bahe Jr. (left) and Pfc. George H. Kirk, Navajo code talkers, operating a portable radio on the island of Bougainville, in December 1943

On Guadalcanal the US Marines were still dug in fending off Japanese attacks on their positions around Henderson Field. A remarkable new asset joined them in November 1942, when a detachment of Marines recruited from the Navajo Nation arrived. It was becoming necessary to communicate urgently by wireless on the battlefield – yet the Marines had learnt that the Japanese were often listening in. The introduction of men speaking in Navajo was to transform this situation. Chester Nez was one of the men who joined the battlefield in November 1942:

A runner approached, handing me a message written in English. It was my first battlefield transmission in Navajo code. I’ll never forget it. Roy pressed the transmit button on the radio, and I positioned my microphone to repeat the information in our code. I talked while Roy cranked. Later, we would change positions.

“Beb-na-ali-trosie a-knah-as-donih ab-toh nish-na-jih-goh dah-di-kad ah-deel-tahi.” Enemy machine-gun nest on your right flank. Destroy.

Suddenly, just after my message was received, the Japanese gun exploded, destroyed by U.S. artillery.

One of the characteristics of the Navajo language was its oral tradition. The men were accustomed to remember quite long and detailed instructions rather than writing them down. This was to be an important aspect of the Navajo Code talkers work in addition to the fact that they their communications were impenetrable to the Japanese. Under the stress of combat conditions they were able to remember and pass on detailed instructions quickly without writing them down:

The hilly terrain on Guadalcanal posed real problems for the men operating mortars and artillery.

Muzzle-loaded mortars were low-velocity, short-range weapons with a high trajectory, particularly well suited to uneven terrain. A mortar could drop into an enemy trench that artillery fire flew right over.

Shells fired by field artillery reached a higher velocity and followed a flatter trajectory. Howitzers were similar to mortars in function, but larger.

The men firing all of these weapons dealt with a serious issue. Artillery, howitzers, and mortars targeted an enemy who was frequently nose to nose with the American soldiers at the front. Marksmen had to clear the hills and the heads of our own troops, causing them no injury, while drawing an accurate bead on the enemy.

This became especially ticklish when we were “walking fire in.” ‘That meant that our weapons were shooting behind the enemy and drawing them closer to the American troops at the front line. As they drew closer, we continued to fire behind them, moving both our fire and the Japanese troops closer and closer to our own troops.

There was no room for error in a maneuver like that. The old Shackle communications system took so long to encode and decode, and it was so frequently inaccurate, that using it for the transmission of on-the-fly target coordinates was a perilous proposition.

Frequently, in the midst of battle, instead of using the Shackle code, the Marines had transmitted in English. They knew the transmissions were probably being monitored by the japanese, so they salted the messages liberally with profanity, hoping to confuse the enemy.

We code talkers changed all that.

See Chester Nez: Code Talker.

A page from the classified Navajo Code manual adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps.

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Nov

22

1942

6th Panzer Division faces Partisan attacks across Russia

22nd November 1942: 6th Panzer Division faces Partisan attacks across Russia

The men in each car had been placed in the brakeman’s boxes; at night searchlights went into action whenever necessary. Their cones of light, shining out of both sides of the train as soon as the first shot was fired, dazzled the partisans and made it possible for our men to see every movement and discern their intentions. Thereupon they were defeated with rapid fire and hand grenades. The brakes were applied and the train came to a sudden halt.

Nov

21

1942

Romanian units collapse outside Stalingrad

21st November 1942: Romanian units collapse outside Stalingrad

Nobody reacts when I try to speak to them. I am glad when this nightmare passes by me, but a little further on I encounter another group. And once again this barely moving trail of ghosts winds past, some with open eyes, others with eyes shut. They don’t care where this road leads. They are running away from war and want only to save their own lives. Nothing else means a thing.

Nov

20

1942

The British enter Benghazi

20th November 1942: The British enter Benghazi

In doing so we came to a wadi and as we got to the lip we spotted an enemy machine-gun nest. The corporal alongside me popped a hand grenade into the nest, getting rid of that one. We tumed to our left flank and carried along the lip of the wadi and wiped out four more machine-gun positions and captured four prisoners before returning to our lines.The chap who was wounded died on the way back.

Nov

19

1942

Operation Uranus – Soviets attack outside Stalingrad

19th November 1942: Operation Uranus – shock Soviet attack outside Stalingrad

The next thing I knew was that all hell had broken loose. The vibrating air blew out the candle and we were trying to sort ourselves out in utter darkness. The whole place trembled, bits of earth fell on to us and the noise was deafening. We were sleep drunk, and kept bumping into each other, mixing up our uniforms, our boots and other equipment, and shouting out loudly to relieve our tension.

Nov

18

1942

British insight into the German military machine

18th November 1942: British insight into the German military machine

Recently 80 new Italian tanks had been left standing near the port of unloading for want of fuel. The tragedy was not as great as it seemed, inasmuch as the tanks were badly designed and constructed and practically worthless for modern war. He had told the Italians that 80 tins of sardines would have suited him better. Were it not for the fuel and supplies obtained in Tobruk, the position of the German and Italian armies in the desert would have become acute some months ago.

Nov

17

1942

Crew of U-331 suffer for half hearted ‘surrender’

17th November 1942: Crew of U-331 suffer for half hearted ‘surrender’

What survivors described as a biplane then approached them from starboard and fired a torpedo. The torpedo-track was clearly evident and Tiesenhausen ordered hard-a-starboard, but it was too late. (N.I.D. Note. This was an Albacore aircraft from H.M.S. “Formidable,” which later reported that one 18 in. Torpedo Mark XII*, Duplex pistol , set to 12 ft., speed 40 knots, was released 700 yards from the U-Boat. The U-Boat disappeared after the explosion of the torpedo and a second explosion was observed under water and wreckage was seen.)

Nov

16

1942

British celebrate the ‘end of the beginning’

16th November 1942: British celebrate the ‘end of the beginning’

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Henceforth Hitler’s Nazis will meet equally well armed, and perhaps better armed troops. Hence forth they will have to face in many theatres of war that superiority in the air which they have so often used without mercy against others, of which they boasted all round the world, and which they intended to use as an instrument for convincing all other peoples that all resistance to them was hopeless….

Nov

15

1942

Surviving an aircraft crash in the desert

15th November 1942: Surviving an aircraft crash in the desert

I was out of there very quickly. We all got out alive, but some of the passengers were injured. The ones who weren’t hurt soon had some tea brewed, by puncturing one of the wing tanks to get petrol, and brewing with usual half tins. The skipper ordered me to get back in the aircraft and send out an SOS on the radio. This was a bit dicey because there was petrol everywhere, and the generators for the radio gave off sparks.

Nov

14

1942

Naval Battle of Guadalcanal continues

14th November 1942: Naval Battle of Guadalcanal continues

Volunteering to pilot a fighter plane in defense of our positions on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, Lieutenant Colonel Bauer participated in two air battles against enemy bombers and fighters outnumbering our force more than two-to-one, boldly engaged the enemy and destroyed one Japanese bomber in the engagement of September 28 and shot down four enemy fighter planes in flames on October 3 leaving a fifth smoking badly.