The Secret Code-Talkers of World War II

A group of Comanche soldiers in uniform sitting for a photo
Comanche code-talkers

Background

Come gather around the campfire and let me tell you a story! Today we’re going to be talking about the code-breakers and code-talkers of World War II. This episode actually turned out longer than I thought, so I’m going to be splitting it into two parts. Part 1 will discuss Native American code-talkers, including the Navajo and Comanche, and a special side story about the last Crow war chief Joe Medicine Crow. Part 2 will discuss Allied code-cracking teams including the stories of Alan Turing, Marian Rejewski, Elizabeth Friedman, and the Venona project.

A historical photo of Native American children sitting at school desks
Native American boarding school

“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

The students would be put into Western clothes and hair styles, separated from friends and family, and punished for any display of their culture, including speaking their native languages. Many were converted to Christianity.

A portrait of William Pollack in a Rough Rider army uniform
William Pollack

“In the memory of our brave fathers I will try and be like one of them, who used to stand single-handed against the foes.”

Pollock himself returned to his tribe and was given horses and other honors, but died of pneumonia soon after. Teddy Roosevelt himself said that Pollock, “conferred honor by his conduct not only upon the Pawnee tribe, but upon the American army and nation.”

A group of soldiers, several wearing traditional Native American clothing
Native American code-talkers

Native Code-Talkers

The term code talker refers to a military member who uses their own language as a code. Generally it’s used to refer to Native Americans during World War I and II.

Other Code-Talkers Around the World

As far as code-talkers outside of the United States, there have been very few. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Egypt used Nubian code talkers. During the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, China used the extremely complicated Chinese dialect of Wenzhounese, which has been nicknamed “the Devil’s language” for how hard it is to learn or understand.

A group of men hold up an American flag
Choctaw code-talkers

World War I

In World War I, 12,000 Native men enlisted in the U.S. Army and 10,000 Native Americans started working for the Red Cross to support the troops. This was during a time where one-third of Natives were not even recognized as American citizens. 5% of Native American troops were killed, versus 1% of general U.S. troops. In 1924, all Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship.

“The tide of battle turned within 24 hours… within 72 hours the Allies were on full attack.”

After World War I, the German government became aware of Native American code talkers being used by the U.S. military. They sent thirty anthropologists to learn Native languages before World War II, but failed to do so, because of the large number of Native languages and dialects. We love Nazis being defeated by diversity. But because of this effort by the Germans, the U.S. decided to use code talkers in the Pacific theater of the war instead of in Europe.

Two soldiers operate radio equipment
Navajo code-talkers

World War II

Over 44,000 Native American men and 800 Native American women served in World War II, out of a total Native American population of 400,000. Which, for anyone who’s like me, is not quick with mental math, is about 11% of the entire Native American population at the time.

“It is with much pride that the Indian woman dons the uniform of her country . . . The Redman is proving to his white brother that he can make an outstanding contribution, both on the home front and behind the firing lines. With the same pride and devotion, the Indian woman is proving herself to be one of Uncle Sam’s priceless daughters.”

6,300 Alaska Natives joined the Alaska Territorial Guard to patrol the coast and shoot down Japanese balloon bombs in a team called the “Eskimo Guard”.

A portrait of Joe Medicine Crow wearing traditional clothing

Joe Medicine Crow

I will mention one famous Native American World War II soldier who was not a code-talker, because his story is so fascinating to me that I couldn’t leave it out. It is impossible for me to talk about the contributions of Native American servicemen in World War II without mentioning Joe Medicine Crow, the last surviving Plains Indians war chief. Joseph Medicine Crow, was born in 1913 on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.

“The collision knocked the German’s weapon to the ground. Mr. Crow lowered his own weapon and the two fought hand-to-hand. In the end Mr. Crow got the best of the German, grabbing him by the neck and choking him. He was going to kill the German soldier on the spot when the man screamed out ‘mama.’ Mr. Crow then let him go.”

Finally, Medicine Crow didn’t just steal one horse. He stole fifty horses from a Nazi SS camp and sang a Crow honor song while he did it.

A graphic from the National Museum of the American Indian

WWII Code-Talkers

Ok. Now back to the code-talkers. During World War II, there were two types of codes primarily used. Type one codes were formalized. A word from their language would be substituted for each letter of the English alphabet. The Comanche, Hopi, Meskwaki, and Navajo languages were used for type one codes. Type two codes were not formalized, and would translate the English message into their own language. If there was not a direct translation, they would use a description from their own language.

A Native American man wearing a full warrior headdress
Gilbert Horn Sr.
Code-talkers honored by George W. Bush
Soldiers with weapons pose for a photo in the jungle
Navajo code-talkers

Navajo

By far the most famous code talkers from World War II are the Navajo. The Navajo call themselves the Diné, or the Naabeeho´ Dine’é and they call their language Diné Bizaad. For the sake of this podcast, I’m going to refer to both the people and the language as Navajo.

“What happened to the Navajo were social conflicts. But this conflict involved Mother Earth being dominated by foreign countries. It was our responsibility to defend her.”

Philip Johnston

“For us, everything is memory, it’s part of our heritage. We have no written language. Our songs, our prayers, our stories, they’re all handed down from grandfather to father to children — and we listen, we hear, we learn to remember everything. It’s part of our training.”

In 1942, Philip Johnston met with the commanding general of the amphibious corps of the pacific fleet, Major General Clayton B. Vogel and talked him into testing his idea.. They ran tests of the Navajo language being used to communicate in simulated combat. The tests showed that the Navajo soldiers could code, send, and decode three lines of English in 20 seconds. It had previously taken machines 30 minutes to do the same.

Men pose in uniform for a formal photo with a sign that says 382nd platoon USMC San Diego 1942
The original Navajo code-talkers

“This major took us into a great big room and he said, “you guys are going to have to make up a code in your own native language,” that’s all he said. He left, closed the door behind him and locked the door. We didn’t know what to think, you know? What does he mean by making a code in our own language? We sat there for about three or four minutes thinking, how are we going to develop this code?”

The Navajo recruits and the military communications officers assigned Navajo words to modern military phrases, which is a type 2 code. The code started with 211 terms and expanded to 411 by the end of the war. For example, a destroyer would be called a ca-lo, or shark in Navajo. A transport was a dineh-nay-ye-hi, or man-carrier. A mine sweeper would be a cha, or beaver.

Victory in the Pacific

“Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

During the war, one military official wrote,

Chester Nez

“Today, we marked a moment of shared history and shared victory. We recall a story that all Americans can celebrate and every American should know. It is a story of ancient people called to serve in a modern war. It is a story of one unbreakable oral code of the Second World War, messages travelling by field radio on Iwo Jima in the very language heard across the Colorado plateau centuries ago.”

Navajo code was used during the Korean War and early on during the Vietnam War. Five Navajo code talkers died in 2019 and 2020: Alfred K. Newman, Fleming Begaye Sr., John Pinto, who was a New Mexico State Senator, William Tully Brown, and Joe Vandever Sr. Four Navajo code talkers are still alive. Navajo remains the only spoken military code that was never cracked.

Legacy

Carl Gorman

“Oh, yes, I’m proud of it, particularly when I shook hands with President Bush in Washington three years ago. He gave me the gold medal. He shook hands with me and then afterwards I spoke. So I spoke in English and then when I got through with my speech I spoke in Navajo, that amounted to about three minutes. I said, ‘You Navajo people that are now on the reservation between the four sacred mountains, I want the people should thank you for using our sacred language. This language was given to us by the Holy People, I don’t know how many thousand years ago. We use it for they, to help win for the United States.”

Code-talker Sam Tso said,

“Charlie’s life has no foreshadowing or ending. As long as wind blows, his life and legacy will continue to twist and turn along courses only wild horses know.”

A gold medal with a depiction of two code talkers using equipment with the inscription Navajo code-talkers by act of congress 2000
The Congressional Gold Medal for the Navajo

“Gentlemen, your service inspires the respect and admiration of all Americans, and our gratitude is expressed for all time, in the medals it is now my honor to present.”

In 2006, Patty Talahongva directed the documentary “The Power of Words: Native Languages as Weapons of War” for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. This film focused on the Hopi code talkers, who were also recognized by the state of Arizona in 2011.

“My wartime experiences developing a code that utilized the Navajo language taught how important our Navajo culture is to our country. For me that is the central lesson: that diverse cultures can make a country richer and stronger.”

Native Americans today face steep disparities in health, economic opportunity, resources, and education. There are ongoing struggles over land rights. It has been a long, slow struggle to grant Native Americans civil rights. Today, many Native American tribes work to preserve their native languages and cultures. There are about 300,000 Navajo tribal members today and about 17,000 Comanche tribal members today. The total number of Native Americans in the United States today is about 6.79 million, which is about 2% of the total population, and it’s growing. Today, over 21,000 Native Americans are on active duty, and there are 183,000 living Native veterans. Native Americans serve at a higher rate than any other demographic.

A 1943 painting by Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma title “First Furlough”

Sources Include:

https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/code-talkers/
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/revered-indian-leader-joe-medicine-crow-last-crow-war-chief-n550046
https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2018/07/11/navajo-code-talker-facts-unbreakable-code/460262002/
https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/american-indian-code-talkers
https://www.doi.gov/blog/honoring-native-american-code-talkers
https://www.britannica.com/topic/Native-American/Developments-in-the-late-20th-and-early-21st-centuries
https://pages.nativehope.org/native-american-life-today
https://www.ncai.org/about-tribes/demographics
https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/in-their-words-notable-quotes-by-and-about-native-veterans-cRI4WK0XxEKcqcKDmLQeHw
https://americanindian.si.edu/why-we-serve/
https://www.militarytimes.com/off-duty/military-culture/2019/11/15/a-warrior-tradition-why-native-americans-continue-fighting-for-the-same-government-that-tried-to-wipe-them-out/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_talker

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Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Gather round, campers, and let me tell you a story! We cover the best true tales of mysteries, histories, true crime, and real heroes from all over the world.