In the United States 14th August is National Code Talkers Day. The Code Talkers were Native Americans who used their tribal languages to send coded communications on the battlefield during the Second World War. Many people have heard of the Diné (Navajo) Code Talkers and their contribution in the Pacific Theatre during World War 2, but they were not the only ones. Men from the Cherokee and Comanche nations also utilised their native languages in Europe and the Pacific; but what will surprise many is that the Choctaw Telephone Squad and other native units had already been used to send messages during the First World War.
These early Code Talkers were few in number, and it wasn’t until the Second World War that the US military initiated a specific policy to recruit and train Native American speakers to work in communications. I am sure that the irony of this situation was not lost on the men who were now seen as so important, yet the vital skill they possessed – to speak in their own native language – was something that had been frowned on in the past; indeed many of the men who were recruited had been forced to attend religious or government-run boarding schools set up to try to assimilate the Native peoples, and they would have been severely punished for using their traditional languages when attending those schools.
Despite requests from Winston Churchill that America should come into the war on the side of Britain and her Allies, the United States remained aloof until 7th December 1941 when the Japanese attacked the American Fleet as it lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor. The following day President Roosevelt said that 7th December 1941 was “a date which will live in infamy”, and America declared war on Japan. Britain also declared war on Japan, but it was not until Germany declared war on America on the 11th that Churchill finally had his wish and the United States came into the European war in support of the Allies.
During the early part of the war in the Pacific, Japan was able to break every military code in use by the Americans. This could not be allowed to continue and so the search was on for an unbreakable code. Philip Johnston, a veteran of the First World War who had grown up on the Navajo Nation where his father was a missionary, suggested to Major Jones at Camp Elliott in San Diego that as the Navajo language was unknown among other tribes and the wider American population there would be no chance of the Japanese breaking a code which utilised it. Major Jones was sceptical – until Johnston spoke a few words of Navajo and the go ahead was given for a trial. On 28th February 1942 four Navajo speakers sent and received coded messages; on 6th March Major General Vogel ordered the recruiting of 200 Navajo speakers to the Marines. On May 5 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits began their basic training, unaware that there was an ulterior motive to their recruitment; once this basic training had been completed they underwent an intensive course in message transmission, and began (in a locked and guarded room) to develop a code which it was hoped the Japanese could not break.
Two types of code were developed by this first group of Code Talkers. The first, Type 1, was made up of 26 Navajo words which could be used to represent letters of the English alphabet and would allow them to spell out words e.g. the Navajo for ‘ant’ is wo-la-chee, and this was used for the letter ‘a’ in the English alphabet. By the end of the war this alphabet had been expanded to 44 so that the most frequently used letters could be represented by more than one word and so make the code even more difficult to break. Type 2 code was made up of words which could be directly translated from English to Navajo; this Type 2 code also had an initial list of 211 military terms which did not exist in Navajo (the list was later increased to 411). For example, there is no word for ‘submarine’ in Navajo and so the term besh-lo (iron fish) was created, as was Toh-Dineh-ih (sea force) for ships. This system made it possible for Code Talkers to translate three lines of English in 20 seconds, a task which would have taken around 30 minutes using existing code-breaking machines. This meant that help could be asked for and received in real time without any delays; when they were eventually deployed on the front line the fast, secure and error-free communication which Code Talkers were able to send by telephone and radio undoubtedly went on to save countless lives.
Most Code Talkers were assigned to a military unit in pairs; during battle one would operate the radio whilst the other sent in Navajo, and translated received messages into English. They took part in every major operation conducted by the Marines in the Pacific, which gave the US forces a distinct advantage over the Japanese.
The first test of the code in battle was on 7th August 1942 when 15 Navajo Code Talkers landed at Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division; Commander General Vandegrift sent a report back to the US saying that the Navajo code was an amazing success – “The enemy never understood it. We don’t understand it either, but it works. Send us some more Navajos.”
During the month-long battle for Iwo Jima, the Code Talkers sent and received more than 800 error-free messages. 5th Marine Division signal officer Major Connor said that, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
By the end of the war approximately 400 Navajo Code Talkers had been sent to the front line, 13 were killed in action; (this was higher than in other units as approximately 3.25% Code Talkers were killed in action as opposed to approximately 2.54% of US forces as a whole). The actions which Code Talkers took part in included Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Peleliu; they were also present on Utah Beach during the D Day invasion of Europe; their code remained unbroken to the end of the war.
The use of Native American languages by the US military was seen as so vital that it was not de-classified until 1968 which meant that Code Talkers were not able to tell their families and communities about the contribution of their native language to the ultimate Allied victory. Even when the work of the Code Talkers was de-classified and President Reagan declared 14th August as National Code Talkers Day in 1982, very few people were aware of this and little recognition was given. It was not until 2000 that the Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act was signed into law, and in 2001 that the first group of 29 Navajo Code Talkers were finally awarded Congressional Gold Medals, all other Code Talkers received Congressional Silver Medals.
If you have not seen Windtalkers – a movie about the Navajo Code Talkers staring Adam Beach, Roger Willie, Nicholas Cage and Peter Stormare – it is certainly worth watching to gain an understanding of what it was like for the Native Americans recruited to this task.