Despite the tragic events of American history in which American Indian nations were forced to always defend themselves and fight for their rights, many American Indian men and women ended up serving in all branches of the military to honorably defend their homelands and the United States.
During World War I and World War II, hundreds of American Indians joined the United States armed forces, and at the request of the U.S. government, developed and memorized a special code from their traditional tribal languages to serve as secret battle communications to confuse the enemy.
After WWII, they became known as “Code Talkers”. The Code Talkers’ role in war required intelligence and bravery and they endured some of the most dangerous battles while remaining calm under fire. They served proudly, with honor and distinction and their actions proved critical in several important campaigns. They are credited with saving thousands of American and allies’ lives. The enemy was never able to decipher the coded messages they sent.
World War Warriors
Native Americans cared about their communities and the lands on which their people had lived for thousands of years. Many of them also served out of a sense of patriotism, wanting to defend the United States. For some American Indians, the military offered economic security and an opportunity for education, training, and world travel.
More than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I—about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at that time. During World War II, when the total American Indian population was less than 350,000, an estimated 44,000 Indian men and women served.
American Indian Code Talkers were communications specialists. Their job was to send coded messages about troop movements, enemy positions, and other critical information on the battlefield. Some Code Talkers translated messages into their Native languages and relayed them to another tribal member. Others developed a special code within their languages that they used in combat to send important messages.
Native Languages Used in Code Talking
During World War I and World War II, a variety of American Indian languages were used to send secret military messages. Here are the American Indian Code Talkers’ languages and the numbers of tribal members who served, if known. There were at least two Code Talkers from each tribe.
World War I: Cherokee, Cheyenne, Choctaw (15), Comanche, Osage, Yankton Sioux
World War II: Assiniboine, Cherokee, Chippewa/Oneida (17), Choctaw, Comanche (17), Hopi (11), Kiowa, Menominee, Muscogee/Creek and Seminole, Navajo (about 420), Pawnee, Sac and Fox/Meskwaki (19), Sioux – Lakota and Dakota dialects
In World War I, Choctaw and other American Indians transmitted battle messages in their tribal languages by telephone. Although not used extensively, the World War I telephone squads played a key role in helping the United States Army win several battles in France that brought about the end of the war. Beginning in 1940, the army recruited Comanches, Choctaws, Hopis, Cherokees, and others to transmit messages. The army had special American Indian recruiters working to find Comanches in Oklahoma who would enlist.
The Marine Corps recruited Navajo Code Talkers in 1941 and 1942. Philip Johnston was a World War I veteran who had heard about the successes of the Choctaw telephone squad. Johnston, although not Indian, had grown up on the Navajo reservation. In 1942, he suggested to the Marine Corps that Navajos and other tribes could be very helpful in maintaining communications secrecy. After viewing a demonstration of messages sent in the Navajo language, the Marine Corps was so impressed that they recruited 29 Navajos in two weeks to develop a code within their language.
After the Navajo code was developed, the Marine Corps established a Code Talking school. As the war progressed, more than 400 Navajos were eventually recruited as Code Talkers. The training was intense. Following their basic training, the Code Talkers completed extensive training in communications and memorizing the code.
Some Code Talkers enlisted, others were drafted. Many who served were under age (just 15) and had to lie about their age to join. Ultimately, there were Code Talkers from at least 16 tribes who served in the army, the marines, and the navy.
Devising the Codes
Many American Indian Code Talkers in World War II used their everyday tribal languages to convey messages. A message would just be translated into the Native language and promptly sent over the radio. These became known as Type Two Codes.
However, the Navajos, Comanches, Hopis, and Meskwakis developed and used special codes based on their languages. These became known as Type One Codes. To develop this type of code, the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers first came up with a Navajo word for each letter of the English alphabet. Since they had to memorize all the words, they used things that were familiar to them, such as kinds of animals. Obviously this type of code was far more complex and created even more difficulty for the enemy to try to decipher.
Creating Special Code Words
Navajo Code Talkers memorized 17 pages of code as part of their training. First, they had to develop a code that the enemies would not be able to translate. Then they had to memorize it. In battle, they had to transmit their messages with the utmost care and accuracy under difficult circumstances. Their work saved lives and helped the United States achieve victories. The Congressional Gold Medal, seen here, was awarded to Navajo Code Talkers in 2001.
The Navajos, Comanches, Hopis, and others also had to develop special words for World War II military terms, such as types of planes, ships, or weapons. They were given picture charts that showed them the items. After looking at the pictures, they came up with words that seemed to fit the pictures.
Sending Coded Messages
On the battlefield, the work of sending coded messages was extremely serious. Being able to keep messages secret could make the difference between winning and losing a battle or affect how many lives were saved or lost. Code Talkers did more than speak into a hand-held radio or phone. They had to know how to operate both wire and radio equipment, and often had to carry it on their backs. They had to know how to set up and maintain the electronic communication wires, or lines. Sometimes their messages were broadcast over a wide area, helping to direct bigger operations. At other times, messages related to a smaller group, such as a platoon.
Code Talkers were given the messages in English. Without writing them down, they translated and sent them to another Code Talker. After the message was transmitted and received, it was written down in English and entered into a message log book. The Code Talkers also sent messages in English. Messages were only coded when absolute security was needed.
The Navajo and Hopi were assigned to service in the Pacific in the war against Japan. The Comanches fought the Germans in Europe, and the Meskwakis fought them in North Africa. Code Talkers from other tribes fought at various locations in Europe, the Pacific, North Africa, and elsewhere.