NAVAJO CODE TALKERS
The Code Talkers’ role in war required intelligence and bravery. They developed and memorized a special code. They endured some of the most dangerous battles and remained calm under fire. They served proudly, with honor and distinction. Their actions proved critical in several important campaigns, and they are credited with saving thousands of American and allies’ lives.
AMERICAN INDIAN WARRIOR TRADITION
For thousands of years, American Indian men have protected their communities and lands. “Warrior” is an English word that has come to describe them. However, their traditional roles involved more than fighting enemies. They cared for people and helped in many ways, in any time of difficulty. They would do anything to help their people survive, including laying down their own lives.
Warriors were regarded with the utmost respect in their communities. Boys trained from an early age to develop the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical strength they would need to become warriors. Many tribes had special warrior societies, which had their own ceremonies, songs, dances, and regalia that they wore. Usually, a warrior had to prove himself before being asked to join a warrior society. It was a great honor to be chosen in this way.
Despite everything that American Indians had endured in the past, the warrior tradition—the tradition of protecting their people—called many of them to serve in the United States military. They cared about their communities and the lands on which their people had lived for thousands of years. Many of them also served out of a sense of patriotism, wanting to defend the United States. For some American Indians, the military offered economic security and an opportunity for education, training, and world travel.
More than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I—about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at that time. During World War II, when the total American Indian population was less than 350,000, an estimated 44,000 Indian men and women served.
RECRUITMENT AND TRAINING
In World War I, Choctaw and other American Indians transmitted battle messages in their tribal languages by telephone. Although not used extensively, the World War I telephone squads played a key role in helping the United States Army win several battles in France that brought about the end of the war.
Beginning in 1940, the army recruited Comanches, Choctaws, Hopis, Cherokees, and others to transmit messages. The army had special American Indian recruiters working to find Comanches in Oklahoma who would enlist.
The Marine Corps recruited Navajo Code Talkers in 1941 and 1942. Philip Johnston was a World War I veteran who had heard about the successes of the Choctaw telephone squad. Johnston, although not Indian, had grown up on the Navajo reservation. In 1942, he suggested to the Marine Corps that Navajos and other tribes could be very helpful in maintaining communications secrecy. After viewing a demonstration of messages sent in the Navajo language, the Marine Corps was so impressed that they recruited 29 Navajos in two weeks to develop a code within their language.
After the Navajo code was developed, the Marine Corps established a Code Talking school. As the war progressed, more than 400 Navajos were eventually recruited as Code Talkers. The training was intense. Following their basic training, the Code Talkers completed extensive training in communications and memorizing the code.
Some Code Talkers enlisted, others were drafted. Many of the Code Talkers who served were under age and had to lie about their age to join. Some were just 15 years old. Ultimately, there were Code Talkers from at least 16 tribes who served in the army, the marines, and the navy.
All I thought when I went in the Marine Corps was going to give me a belt of ammunition, and a rifle, a steel helmet, and a uniform. Go and shoot some of those Japanese. That’s what I thought; but later on they told us differently, you know different style, purpose of why they got us in.—Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004
That was about 1940, and when I got home I said, I found out they was recruiting 20 Comanches who could talk their tribe fluently for a special unit, and I told dad, “I’d like to go.”—Charles Chibitty, Comanche Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004
We were drafted. They made us go. I didn’t volunteer. —Franklin Shupla, Hopi Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004
CONSTRUCTING THE CODE
Many American Indian Code Talkers in World War II used their everyday tribal languages to convey messages. A message such as, “Send more ammunition to the front,” would just be translated into the Native language and sent over the radio. These became known as Type Two Codes.
However, the Navajos, Comanches, Hopis, and Meskwakis developed and used special codes based on their languages. These became known as Type One Codes.
To develop their Type One Code, the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers first came up with a Navajo word for each letter of the English alphabet. Since they had to memorize all the words, they used things that were familiar to them, such as kinds of animals.
So we start talking about different things, animals, sea creatures, birds, eagles, hawks, and all those domestic animals. Why don’t we use those names of different animals—from A to Z. So A, we took a red ant that we live with all the time. B we took a bear, Yogi the Bear, C a Cat, D a Dog, E an Elk, F, Fox, G, a goat and so on down the line.—Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004
Here are some of the words they used:
LetterNavajo wordEnglish wordCMOASICatDLHA-CHA-EHDOGEDZEHElkITKINIceONE-AHS-JAHOwlRGAHRabbitVA-KEH-DI-GLINIVictor
See if you can translate the following coded message:
MOASI NE-AHS-JAH LHA-CHA-EH DZEH GAH DZEH MOASI DZEH TKIN A-KEH-DI-GLINI DZEH LHA-CHA-EH
This is the English translation:
Here’s how the message is decoded:
MOASI (C-Cat), NE-AHS-JAH (O-Owl), LHA-CHA-EH (D-Dog), DZEH (E-Elk), GAH (R-Rabbit), DZEH (E-Elk), MOASI (C-Cat), DZEH (E-Elk), TKIN (I-Ice), A-KEH-DI-GLINI (V-Victor), DZEH (E Elk), LHA-CHA-EH (D-Dog)
*Source: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
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