Code talkers were American Indians who, using their native languages (sometimes with modification), helped the war effort in the first and second world wars by encoding messages. Considering the importance of communication, especially on the battle field, having a way to give and receive orders and information was paramount and the need for a way to do it without it being intercepted by the enemy was necessity.
While the Navajo in World War II are the best known example, and the Choctaw in both conflicts to a lesser extent, well over a dozen tribes took part in both wars in this capacity.
One thing that enabled the success of the "program" was that until the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth many tribes had no written language (the most notable exception being the Cherokee, whose syllabary developed by Sequoya had been in use since the 1820s). Further, there hadn't been much widespread linguistic research on many of the languages outside of academia or by private scholars (often missionaries or self-appointed anthropologists). This made the native languages ideal for use in encoding messages.
Also, since those using the technique would already be native speakers with a high degree of fluency (even by World War I, there were generations of Indians growing up with little or no knowledge of their tribes' tonguea legacy of the reservation system, the General Allotment Act, and an Indian boarding school system where a child would be punished for not speaking English), training would be minimal as opposed to someone needing to learn a prewritten code in full. All that would be necessary would be another Indian who knew the same language and the system of identifying military ordnance and conceptssome of which had no corresponding words in the native language, giving rise to words and phrases like "iron fish" for submarine or "owl" to mean an observation plane.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this part of military history is how successful it turned out to be. Besides the amazing accuracy of the men who encoded and decoded the messages, the enemy never broke any of the "codes" used.
World War I
The first use of Indians as "code talkers" took place during the first world war. American Indians have a long history of military service in the twentieth century (once the government stopped actively trying to kill them off) and many served in World War I. There was one company of Indians in France, part of the 142nd Infantry Regiment which had speakers of some twenty-six languages/dialects. A system was set up using speakers of Choctaw to communicate messages without enemy interception.
Over a dozen men were chosen and stationed in the different field headquarters where they could send and receive messages over the radio and telephone. Also, despite the high number of message "runners" who were caught by the Germans (one in four), the messages were indecipherable to them. Their efforts helped greatly in the waning days of the war.
Their families received posthumous Choctaw Nation Medals of Valor in 1986 and France presented to the Chief of the Choctaw Nation the Chevalier l'Ordre national du Mérite, its highest honor, for the hard work and important contribution they made during the war.
In addition to the Choctaw, there were five other tribes whose languages were used by native speakers: the Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Osage, Sioux (Yankton branch of the Sioux Nations, probably speaking Nakota or "N-dialect"). Unlike the Choctaw, who developed a more systematic and complex coded "vocabulary," these code talkers mainly used their native language in simple communication.
World War II
The success of the endeavor and the precedent having been set, World War II saw a more extensive use of the Indian code talkers. The allies had managed to break many of both the German and Japanese codes and the axis had done the same, particularly the Japanese. It was hoped that the success of the previous world war could be duplicated.
In 1940 (before the US entered the war) seventeen Comanche men were placed in a program in the Army Signal Corps and trained to use their own language as a means of sending encoded messages. Used in the European Theater, they equaled the accomplishment of their comrades almost twenty years prior. They took part in the Normandy Invasion, helping to communicate messages back and forth, with details of enemy movements, location, and troop strength. They were also part of the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge.
Like the Choctaw before them, they had a complex vocabulary of terms specifically designed for the purpose, which led to some amusing phrases, such as "pregnant airplane" for bomber and "crazy white man" for Adolf Hitler. On occasion, they would "superencrypt" the messages by encoding the message in English and translating that into Comanchean example cited would be using words that seemed to be discussing baseball: "we're on second with two outs in the bottom of the fifth" (members.aol.com). Even if the message had been deciphered back into English (which it never was), it would still be safe.
The last three remaining Comanche code talkers attended the ceremony in France where the Choctaws were posthumously honored (code talkers being honored generally). Later they were given a certificate of appreciation from the US Defense Department.
The best knownand most extensively usedcode talkers during the war were the Navajo. Around 420 men were utilized by the armed forces in the Pacific Theater. In fact, they took part in every major US Marine assault between 1942 and 1945.
They had been recommended for the program by a Philip Johnston, who had lived on Navajo land as a child with his missionary parents. He was knowledgeable about the language and familiar with the Choctaw soldiers from the last war. He felt that the complex language of the Navajo, in which "one word, spoken in four different alterations in pitch or tone of voice, had four different meanings" (www.bckelk.uklinux.net). Johnston managed to convince the Marines that they would be capable of a code that had little chance of being broken as the others had been. He also showed how efficient and accurate they were by demonstrating that they could encode, send, and decode a three line message in English in only twenty seconds. Special machines built to encrypt messages could take up to a half hour.
Many operations were practically run using coded messages sent through two Navajo speakers. Of special note was the job done during the invasion and taking of Iwo Jima, where teams of six Navajos worked around the clock, relaying over eight hundred messages. And as with the other code talkers, the accuracy was impeccable. One signal officer from the 5th Marine Division said that "were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima" (www.history.navy.mil).
Perhaps an exaggeration but the importance they played in that and many other operations has become the stuff of legend. In 1992, they were finally given the honor and recognition they so well deserved when the Pentagon dedicated an exhibit celebrating the achievements of the Navajo code talkers. Thirty-five of the remaining members of the program attended. As did the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Navajo President, and Arizona Senator John McCain.1 In 2001, four of the five living Navajo code talkers (and the relatives of twenty-four more) were honored with Congressional Gold Medals by President George W. Bush. Interestingly, it is the highest civilian award that can be given out.
Their work was so successful that even other Navajo speakers who were not privy to the code couldn't understand. One man who had been captured and part of the infamous Bataan Death March, was forced to stand naked in the snow until he would tell his captors the secret of the code. He couldn't even had he wanted to.
Far from being safe and secure behind friendly lines, many of those in the various units took active roles in combat; some were wounded and even killed in the course of their service. There were even some who were "captured" after being mistaken for the enemy.
Like in the first war, many other Indians took part in using their language to transmit information and messages. Though the Comanche and Navajo were the only ones with a formalized vocabulary of code words and phrases, each man contributed to the war effort in ways the extent of which may never be fully appreciated. The other tribes represented were the Chippewa (Ojibwe), Choctaw, Creek, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Seminole, Oneida, Pawnee, Sac and Fox (sometimes "Sauk," two related tribes usually discussed together; represented by nineteen men), Sioux (both Lakota and Dakota, L- and D-dialects used).
1He was there because of the Navajo population from that state. It is interesting, though, given his later refusal to entertain the idea of taking away the so-called "medals of dishonor" (Congressional Medal of Honor) that were awarded twenty men for their "heroic" action taken at the Massacre at Wounded Knee. When requirements were tightened in 1917, all 2,625 previously awarded medals were reviewed. Several hundred were rescinded for various reasonsbut not one from the massacre. In response to a petition on the subject in 1996, McCain concluded with: "a well-conceived memorial to the victims of Wounded Knee is much preferable to attempting to strip long-dead soldiers of a medal which they might not merit under today's standards" (www.dickshovel.com).
(Sources: www.bckelk.uklinux.net/ctalk.html, www.defenselink.mil/specials/nativeamerican01/code.html, www.history.navy.mil.faqs/faq61-2.htm, www.execpc.com/~shepler/codetalkers.html, lmri.ucsb.edu/pipermail/reformanet/1998-April/003025.html, members.aol.com/asavets/documents/sigcorps2.htm, www.dickshovel.com/mccain.html)