The Native American Code Talkers That Helped America Win WWII

  • Navajo code talkers used their language to create a code that helped America win WWII.
  • Many Native American children were punished for speaking their native languages.
  • The legacy of code talkers is an important part of Native American and American history.

In May 1942, 29 Navajo men arrived at Camp Elliott, the first training center for the Navy during World War II. Spanning 32,000 acres in San Diego, the base has camps, bivouac areas, and 41 firing ranges.

But a small group of Navajo men weren’t there to learn how to fight, at least not with guns. Instead they were tasked with creating an unbreakable code to help defeat enemy forces.

In the early months of the war, Japanese intelligence had easily broken every code devised by the US military. A man named Philip Johnston suggested hiring Native Americans to develop a code that could not be understood by the enemy. The son of a Protestant missionary, Johnston grew up in the Navajo region, and he realized that the language was a bit difficult to master without a quick mastery.

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The program proved successful, and was expanded to include approximately 400 Native American code talkers during WWII.

The irony of using their language to help a country that wanted to eradicate Native American culture through administrative policies was not lost on Navajo code talkers. But this was their country, too, and they were ready to defend it.

“We used our language to defeat the enemy,” Chester Nez, one of the first 29 code talkers, recalled in an oral history project decades later.

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Some Navajo children were punished for speaking their native language

The US Army chose the Navajo as its primary source of code talkers because they were “the only tribe in the United States that has not been attacked by German students in the last 20 years,” the commander said. general Clayton Vogel wrote on March 6, 1942. letter.

After the US successfully used the Choctaw language to transmit secret messages during World War I, Germany and Japan sent students to the United States to study Native American languages. Navajo was another language they did not understand.

The United States Army sent officers to Navajo schools and government boarding schools to recruit willing boys and men. Most of the nearly 400 Native American code talkers were between the ages of 15 and 35 — many were “just boys who knew nothing of the world outside Navajo territory, ” according to Paul Gosar, Arizona House Representative, in a 2011 speech to Congress.

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Nez was in the tenth grade when a Marine recruit came to the boarding school he attended looking for Native American youth who knew Navajo and English well. He jumped at the chance to defend his country, he said in his oral history. Leaving a boarding school – where he had his mouth washed out with soap for speaking Navajo – was a help.

Nez lied about his age, and kept the writing a secret from his family, according to the AP. Shortly thereafter, he arrived at Camp Elliott along with 28 other Navajo men, ready to help their country win the war.

Private Class Preston Toledo and Private First Class Frank Toledo, cousins ​​and full-blooded Navajo Indians, attached to the Navy in the South Pacific, relay orders over the radio in their native language, Ballarat , July 7, 1943.

Private Class Preston Toledo and Frank Toledo, cousins ​​and Navajo code talkers, Ballarat, July 7, 1943.

PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Creating non-destructive codes

Code talkers had to produce and memorize unique military codes, which could not be written down and existed only among a small group. Under high-pressure combat conditions, code talkers had to remember their code quickly and accurately and transmit the flaws over the radio – or risk the lives of hundreds or thousands of people. in danger.

The Type 1 code consisted of 26 Navajo words that represented individual English letters. For example, the Navajo word for “ant,” “wo-la-chee,” was used to represent the letter “a” in English.

To speed up the transfer, code talkers developed the Type 2 code, which included a 411-word dictionary for military terms that did not exist in the Navajo language. A submarine became “besh-lo,” or “iron fish” in Navajo, and “warplanes” was “dah-he-tih-hi,” meaning “hummingbirds.” To say “America,” code talkers used “ne-he-mah,” or “our mother.”

According to Gosar, the law was an astonishing success, and remains “the only unbroken law in modern military history.”

The work of hundreds of code talkers was essential to securing Allied victory in the war, especially in the Pacific.

“If it hadn’t been for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” said Major Howard Connor.

The Navajo code talkers were kept secret for years after the war

The strict nature of military regulations meant that code talkers had to keep their work a secret, even from family members. The “code speaker” program was canceled in 1968, but it was more than a decade later that they were recognized as national heroes.

On July 28, 1982, President Ronald Reagan designated August 14 as Navajo Code Talkers Day, recognizing the warriors as national heroes. And, in 2001 — nearly 60 years after they created their historic code — Native American code talkers were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.

President George W. Bush presents the Gold Medal to John Brown, Jr., Navajo Code Talker, during the Gold Medal Ceremony at the US Capitol.  At left is Navajo Code Talker and Gold Medalist Chester Nez.

On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented John Brown, Jr., Navajo Code Talker with the Gold Medal, during the Gold Medal Ceremony at the US Capitol. At left is Navajo Code Talker and Gold Medalist Chester Nez.

Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images

But the state’s recognition of Navajo culture and language will be tested again. This fall, the Supreme Court is considering a case that could undermine American Indian sovereignty and undermine efforts to preserve tribal culture.

Although the verdict may be months away, the legacy of the code talkers will live on in American history.

“It’s one of the biggest pieces of history that we’ve used in our language during World War II,” Nez told the AP. “We’re very proud of it.”


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