This sample history essay explores the idea to use Navajo Indians for secure communications arose in the early stages of World War II and Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific, from 1942 to 1945. During the world wars, information was power, and essential to saving lives.
The Germans were expert code breakers and code makers, and the Choctaw Native American language was one of the only codes which could stymie these wily enemies. While their participation in WWI was limited but effective, it paved the way for the extensive use of the Choctaw code in WWII which would end up saving many lives. The Choctaw individuals who served were called “Code Talkers”, and did a great service during this time of international calamity.
World War I code talkers
Germans would break Allied codes with ease during WWI through tapping phone lines and other means. Familiar with the strengths and uniqueness of Native American languages, a U.S. commander thought up the tactic which would turn the tide of the war. This was a generous gift to America since the Choctaw peoples had suffered at the hands of the government:
One of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeastern United States, the Choctaw traditionally farmed corn, beans and pumpkins while also hunting, fishing and gathering wild edibles. Despite allying themselves with the United States in the War of 1812, they were pressured afterward into ceding millions of acres of land to the government.
Following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, most members of the tribe were then forced to relocate to present-day Oklahoma in a series of poorly planned and poorly provisioned journeys that left an estimated 2,500 dead. In what would become a catchphrase for all Indian removal west of the Mississippi River, a Choctaw chief described it as a “trail of tears.” (Greenspan)
At the beginning of the United States involvement in WWI, Native Americans had still not yet been granted citizenship-an outrageous concept. As a result of ethnic cleansing the government instituted to erase the culture as they had attempted to genocide the people, government-run boarding schools persisted in attempting to erase the language of the native peoples.
Even so, “several thousand Native Americans enlisted in the armed forces to fight the Central Powers. Nearly 1,000 of them representing some 26 tribes joined the 36th Division alone, which consisted of men from Texas and Oklahoma” (Greenspan).
Judy Allen, senior office of tribal relations for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, comments on this choice:
They saw that they were needed to protect home and country…so they went to the nearest facility where they could sign up and were shipped out” (Greenspan).
These brave soldiers would provide the key to winning battles even as they were degraded at home. At this time in WWI codes were based on either mathematical processions or the base of European languages, both relatively simple for Germans to decode.
The army tried many methods of communication, finding “Sending out human runners proved equally ineffective, since about one in four were captured or killed….other methods of communications, such as color-coded rockets, electronic buzzers and carrier pigeons, were too limiting, too slow, too unreliable or a combination thereof” (Greenspan).
Choctaws during WWI
The choice to use Choctaw occurred when a commander heard two of his men speaking to each other in their native tongue, and he immediately saw the tactical advantage. Therefore, if Choctaw men had not enlisted in the army of the nation which was oppressing them this opportunity would have been entirely missed, and many more people would have died as a result.
World War I was a tight, intense, bloody battle, in which any advantage was taken to the utmost. It was, on October 26, 1918, the Choctaws were put to use for the first time as part of the withdrawal of two companies from the front. Having completed this mission without mishap, they then played a major role the following two days in an attack on a strongly fortified German position called Forest Ferme.
“The enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages,” Colonel A.W. Bloor later wrote in an official report. The tide of battle turned within 24 hours, according to Bloor, and within 72 hours the Allies were on full attack. (Greenspan)
This tactical change enabled the Allied troops to continue using the efficient telephone without fear of being uncovered. Nineteen Choctaw soldiers completed training in which they chose how to use their language to establish communicative codes.
Since the WWI code talkers helped turn the tide which ended WWI, their preparation was not fully utilized. In training, Lacking the words for certain modern-day military terms, they used metaphors like “big gun” for artillery, “little gun shoot fast” for machine gun, “stone” for grenade and “scalps” for casualties, among other substitutions, thereby becoming true code talkers rather than simply communications operators speaking a little-known language. (Greenspan)
However, the war would end very shortly after establishing this protocol, but it would not entirely go to waste. These men laid the foundation for the expansion of the Code Talkers program which would play a valuable role in WWII.
World War II code talkers
It is unfortunate that the lessons learned from the success of the Code Talkers in WWI were not immediately applied to the needs of the Allies in WWII, but a persistent ethnocentrism mixed with a disdain for history led to their contribution being put off unnecessarily. In 1942, the war was not going in the Allies favor, and communications were inefficient. At this time,
Japanese cryptographers were proving themselves amazingly adept at breaking top secret military codes almost as rapidly as newer, more complicated procedures could be devised. Many of the Japanese code breakers had been educated in the United States where they had learned to speak English and had become familiar with American colloquialisms, including slang terms and profanity…The result was an appalling loss of American lives. One war analyst commented, “Military communications were made available to the enemy like sand sifting through a sieve.”(Wilsont)
Unfortunately, those who advocated to use the Navajo linguistics as code had to convince their superiors to even try it, the lesson of history forgotten in the continual fascination with technology and progress. A civilian civil engineer, Philip Johnston, was the one to conceive of the value of the Navajo language to the army, and
Johnston’s confidence in his theory lay in the fact that the Navajo language includes a number of words that, when spoken with varying inflections, may have as many as four totally different meanings. Navajo verb forms are especially complex. To most listeners, the language is virtually incomprehensible and has been variously likened to the rumble of a moving freight train. (Wilsont)
Integrating Navajo code and military strategy
In order to prove the language could accurately translate orders, Johnston found four bilingual Navajo speakers, and did a demonstration for the army. Separated, first two Navajos were given a typical military field order to transmit in their own language to the others several doors away. When retranslated back into English, the message received by the second pair proved to be an accurate copy. (Wilsont)
The delay from this embracing of what could have already been utilized in the field continued to cost lives, and was agonizing and needlessly slow (Wilsont).
It took time to find, recruit, and train the two hundred bilingual Navajo speakers, but once they were gathered. During basic training the group began to brainstorm and create a code that would baffle their enemies. They devised, after working long and hard on the project, the men devised a two-part code. The first part, a 26-letter phonetic alphabet, used Navajo names for 18 animals or birds, plus the words ice for I, nut for N, quiver for Q, Ute for U, victor for V, cross for X, yucca for Y, and zinc for Z.
The second part consisted of a 211-word English vocabulary and the Navajo equivalents. This code, when compared with conventional Marine Corps codes, offered considerable savings in time, since the latter involved lengthy encoding and deciphering procedures by Signal Corps cryptographic personnel using sophisticated electronic equipment. (Wilsont)
The value of the Code Talkers cannot be underestimated, and one would hope that the lesson they bring would not be lost to history again. Their story was immortalized in the film Windtalkers with Nicolas Cage, so there is a better chance of remembering this time (Windtalkers). Major Howard Conner, the Fifth Marine Division’s Signal Officer commented on the value of the Code Talkers, praising their skill in a time of necessity,
The entire operation was directed by Navajo code. . . . During the two days that followed the initial landings I had six Navajo radio nets working around the clock. . . . They sent and received over 800 messages without an error. Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima. (Wilsont)
Many of the Code Talkers continued to serve in the army after the end of the war, and those who went back to the states often had great difficulty assimilating back into civilian life, especially on the reservations where opportunity was limited (NMAI). One of the reasons those working with codes in WWII had no idea that the Choctaw participated in WWI, and the value of the Code Talkers is that the mission was kept top secret until 1968 (Bos). It is unfortunate that this information was not made available to those who were working with codes. Many lives could have been saved.
The Choctaw and Navajo Code Talkers played a major role in American history, allowing their persecuted language and culture to serve those who worked to disenfranchise them. The lives saved through their service may be incalculable, but the value of empathy is not. Their example remains a reminder to forgive, and to look towards the bigger issues which all humanity shares together.
Bos, Carole “Wind Talkers: Navajo Code Talkers in WWII.” AwesomeStories.com. Jun 01, 2002. Retrieved from: https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Wind-Talkers-Navajo-Code-Talkers-in-WWII.
Greenspan, Jessie. “World War I’s Native American Code Talkers.” History.com, 24 May 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.history.com/news/world-war-is-native-american-code-talkers.
Nez, Chester, and Judith Schiess Avila. Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2011. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=zeEBYpvs8JAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Native+American+Code+Talkers&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwil6tv5uoLNAhUEdlIKHcCfC7sQ6AEIHTAA#v=onepage&q=Native%20American%20Code%20Talkers&f=false.
NMAI. “Code Talking.” NMAI.si.edu, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.nmai.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter4.html.
Wilsont, William R. “World War II: Navajo Code Talkers.” Historynet.com, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.historynet.com/world-war-ii-navajo-code-talkers.htm
Windtalkers. Dir. John Woo. Perf. Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Peter Stormare, and Noah Emmerich. Metro Goldwhyn Mayer, 2002. Film. Retrieved from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0245562/.