Code Talkers Have Served the Military Well—and Often Secretly
Click here for our obituary on Navajo code talker and hero, Joe Morris Sr.
Click here for our story of 90-year-old veteran Chester Nez, who keeps alive the story of Navajo code talkers.
Most people know about the Navajo code talkers who served in the U.S. military in World War II, but few know that members of at least 19 American Indian tribes acted as code talkers for the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines during both world wars. Choctaw members of the Army’s 36th Division in France transmitted messages in their Native language that were undecipherable by German forces. Until that point in the war, no transmitted message had been sent by the Allies that was not decoded by the Germans. Ruth McMillan, daughter of the late Choctaw code talker Tobias Frazier, remembers her father’s words: “Papa said—and everybody says—that the [Allied Forces] were beaten when they got [to Europe], and then we won those two battles [using code talkers], and it really turned the course of the war.”
The idea of using Choctaws to transmit messages in World War I has been traced to an incident in which Choctaw soldiers were conversing in their native language. An officer overheard the men, and recognized the vast potential to use this language to transmit messages due to the fact that it had never been written or recorded, and so few speakers existed.
Native code-talker expert, author, professor and Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian consultant Dr. William Meadows says the Choctaw soldiers were crucial in helping the American Expeditionary Forces win several key battles in France, which promoted the use of Native languages throughout World War I. Almost immediately after those early battles, the Choctaw messengers developed coded words and phrases to refer to military terms not already in their Native vocabulary. For example, “platoon” became thong or hlibata, “first battalion” became one grain of corn or tanch nihi achäffa, “company” became bow or iti tanampo, and a “patrol” was many scouts or tikba pisa.
Individuals speaking Cherokee, Northern Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, and Lakota, Nakota and Dakota dialects were also used to transmit messages during World War I. Upon returning to the U.S. after World War I, American Indian code talkers were sworn to secrecy about their vital duties in Europe, and because many of them died before the information was declassified, few people or even their tribes knew about their service. “They were silent heroes during their lives,” says Chief of the Choctaw Nation Gregory E. Pyle, “and they simply went to their graves with that secret.”
McMillan says her father did not often speak of his service in the war. He returned to Oklahoma and lived out his life on a farm near Frazier Creek. “I thought it was very patriotic to go to war and not even be a U.S. citizen,” she says. “Even though Papa used Choctaw in the war, he wouldn’t let us speak it, because he wasn’t allowed to speak it.”
World War II
Meadows explains that members of Native groups were chosen by the Army, Navy and Marines for service during World War II based upon several factors: whether or not their language had been written or recorded; the number of males of appropriate age to serve who were both fluent in their Native language and English; overall willingness of tribal men to serve in the U.S. military; and the number of these individuals who could read and write in English. The Comanche, Hopi, Meskwaki, Chippewa and Oneida were the tribes initially chosen, and each group developed codes based upon their languages, with the Comanche creating a code of approximately 250 words. A short time later, the Marines recruited many Navajo, who developed a code with approximately 600 code words.
Credit for envisioning and promoting that program goes to Philip Johnston, a civil engineer and World War I veteran, who had grown up in the Navajo Nation and could converse in the language. In late 1941, after reading a newspaper story detailing the code-talker work being done by other tribal servicemen, Johnston realized that the Navajo would be an ideal group to recruit for this purpose because fewer than 30 individuals outside the Navajo Nation were familiar with their language at that time. The idea was presented to the U.S. Marine Corps, which started recruiting Navajo in June 1942. A sophisticated Navajo code was developed later that year by 29 men, who have come to be known as “The Original 29” [see pg. 24]. Meadows says that while the other branches of the U.S. military decided not to develop their Native language communication programs, the Marines pursued their program aggressively, and by the end of World War II, approximately 421 “Navajo Code Talkers” had been trained.
While the Comanche were active in Europe, the Navajo and Hopi were assigned to serve in the Pacific and the Meskwaki were stationed in northern
Africa. Code talkers from other tribes served in various locations. In the Pacific theater, the first 48 hours of combat in Iwo Jima were conducted completely in the Navajo Code. On D-Day, Comanche code talkers sent radio messages detailing the exact landing locations of each group of Allied forces as their ships landed at Normandy.
After World War II
The service of the Navajo code talkers was classified by the Marines, but code talkers from other Native nations were not sworn to secrecy. However, Meadows says, few people learned of what the code talkers accomplished in World War II due to the modesty of the men who served in those roles, although plenty of recognition came to the Navajo code talkers almost immediately after their service was declassified in 1968.
It was not until 1989 that France and the state of Oklahoma honored the Choctaw and Comanche code talkers of both world wars. At that time, the French government presented the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite, the highest honor it can bestow on citizens of other nations to each living Comanche code talker and the Choctaw and Comanche nation leaders. This recognition raised public knowledge about this type of service, and media, military and cultural centers began to request more information about Native code talkers other than the Navajo.
In 1992, Comanche code talkers were honored with a U.S. Certificate of Appreciation.
In 2001, the original 29 Navajo code talkers were honored with Congressional Gold Medals. In 2006, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service co-produced a mobile exhibition called Native Words, Native Warriors, a traveling exhibition at museums throughout the U.S. There is also an interactive website through which individuals can learn about the code talkers’ childhoods, education, military service, return home and recognition.
Upon return to their homelands after their military service, many of the code talkers were encouraged to leave the war behind them. “Not many speak about their service because when Navajos came back they had ceremonies to spiritually cleanse—and to cleanse their bodies. They were told never to talk about it,” Helena Holiday, Navajo, daughter of Navajo code talker Sam Holiday, says. “Now only about 20 Navajo code talkers are out there talking about it, going to schools and sharing their story.”
In 2008, Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act, which recognizes every American Indian code talker who served in the two world wars. The act, which does not include the Navajo code talkers (because they have already received Congressional Medals of Honor) will grant a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor to each tribe and a duplicate silver medal to the family of every code talker.
To date, none of the medals have been coined or awarded. The Choctaw Tribe received its preliminary design in late June, and is hopeful that the medals will be complete by the close of 2011. “It’s a long time coming, but as long as it happens, I’ll be happy,” McMillan says. “The main reason is to let our people be proud of their history and their ethnic background…to broaden some minds, perhaps. Everybody needs to know what our people did.”
To see the Native Words, Native Warriors exhibit, click here.