Philip Johnston

Citation metadata

Date: 2021
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Biography
Length: 858 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1040L

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About this Person
Born: September 17, 1892 in Topeka, Kansas, United States
Died: September 11, 1978 in San Diego, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Civil engineer
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Philip Johnston was an American civil engineer and a member of the US Army engineers. Raised on a Navajo reservation, he spoke fluent Navajo and frequently served as an interpreter. After America entered World War II, Johnston suggested to the US Marine Corps that the Navajo language could be used to send coded messages. He helped recruit the first men for what became a special Marine unit known as the Navajo Code Talkers. The code they developed was never broken and helped America succeed in World War II.

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Fast Facts

  • Philip Johnston learned to speak Navajo while playing with other children on the reservation.
  • The Navajo called Johnston adeetsahe, which means “understander.”
  • Johnston continued to return to Arizona once a year throughout most of his life to visit his family and Navajo friends.


Philip Johnston was born on September 14, 1892, in Topeka, Kansas. His father, William, was a missionary. He moved his wife, Maggie, and four-year-old son to live on a Navajo reservation near Flagstaff, Arizona. The younger Johnston soon became fluent in their language and was trusted to help translate.

Johnston’s father was committed to helping the Navajo people retain their land. He asked the Indian Rights Association how he could help. They suggested he make a map recording where the Navajo lived and how long their families lived there. In late 1901, he went to Washington, DC, to meet with officials and try to secure the Navajos’ rights.

He took two Navajo men and his nine-year-old son with him on the long train trip. The group was given an opportunity to meet with the new president, Theodore Roosevelt. The Navajo men spoke to the president in their own language, and the younger Johnston translated the conversation. A short time later, the Indian Rights Association notified the Johnstons that Roosevelt had signed an executive order granting the Navajo the rights to the land.

Johnston completed his studies at the Northern Arizona Normal School, which became Northern Arizona University. In 1918, he accepted a reserve commission with the US Army Engineers 319th division and entered military training. He was sent to Europe as part of the American Expeditionary Force fighting World War I in France.

Navajo Code Talkers

When America entered World War II after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Johnston was still in Los Angeles. He had heard about the American military’s success using Comanches to communicate in code during World War I. His experience with the Navajo language convinced him that it would be an effective way to code messages as well.

Johnston contacted the US Navy about his idea. They directed him to contact the US Marines in San Diego. Johnston recruited four Navajo men to go with him to Camp Eliot in San Diego, where they provided a demonstration. The men were seated in pairs in different rooms and asked to send messages to one another using military field phones.

There were some problems because the Navajo language did not include words for all the military terminology that they needed to encode. However, the men were able to work out substitutions, such as using the Navajo word for “hummingbird” in place of “fighter plane,” which allowed for successful communication. The demonstration was a success. The marines recruited more Navajo willing to undergo military training and become part of the unit that was known as the Navajo Code Talkers.

The Navajos developed the code themselves, so it seemed that Johnston’s role in the project was finished. However, he remained interested and in the summer of 1942 asked to be included. He sent an application to the office of the Marine Commandant in Washington, DC, which was approved in October 1942.

Johnston was put on active duty at the rank of staff sergeant. His first assignment was to spend a month recruiting on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. In November, he met with his recruits in San Diego to oversee the training of the second group of Code Talkers.

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Timeline: Philip Johnston

  • 1892: Is born in Topeka, Kansas, on September 14.
  • 1901: Translates for Navajo and President Roosevelt.
  • 1918: Enlists in US Army Engineers.
  • 1925: Graduates from University of Southern California.
  • 1942: Suggests Navajo Code Talkers.
  • 1978: Dies in San Diego, California, on September 11.

In 1943, a news article was published that revealed the existence of the Navajo Code Talkers. This was a problem because it could have endangered the effectiveness of the unit and allowed the Japanese to decode American messages. Johnston was one of four people who came under suspicion of having revealed the unit’s existence but was cleared. Hundreds of Code Talkers were trained and deployed before the war ended. They continued to be an effective part of the American war effort. The sophisticated code they developed because of Johnston’s suggestion was never broken.

After his involvement with the Navajo Code Talkers during World War II, Johnston returned to civilian life. He died in the Veteran’s Hospital in San Diego, California, on September 11, 1978. He was buried in Glendale, California.

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Words to Know

A person sent to an area to teach others about a religion.
To get people to join a group.
Complicated or advanced.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CXNVXA175549843