Ancient language, modern weapon: American Indian code talkers

  • Published
  • By Ann Lukens
  • 23rd Force Support Squadron

Moody recently celebrated a holiday that would not have been possible without the Native American Indians' assistance when European settlers came to colonize what would become the United States.

Native Americans continued that tradition of assistance when they developed a modern code from their ancient language. Two forms of a talking American Indian Code exist--type one is used intentionally as with encoded native languages while type two is simply the use of a foreign language during impromptu situations.

In 1918, the first code talkers were Choctaw soldiers during World War I in France. The Germans broke Allied communication codes while monitoring radio and telephone lines. While overhearing two Choctaw soldiers talking in their own language, an officer stumbled on the idea of using coded words (e.g., a machine gun was coded as "little gun shoot fast") to elude German intelligence.

A communication system staffed by 18 Choctaw and supervised by two Indian officers transmitted messages relating to troop movements and tactical plans. The code was never broken and is credited with assisting in ending the war. The lesson was definitely not forgotten by the War Department.

In December 1940, 17 Comanche were recruited to develop an unbreakable Comanche-language type one code under the direction of Lt. Hugh Foster at Fort Benning, Ga. He provided 250 specialized military terms and the Comanche developed coded equivalents.

Training and field exercises in Louisiana were completed by October 1941 and the new code was ready when America entered World War II in December 1941. Thirteen of the original Comanche code talkers participated in the Normandy invasion of France in June 1944.

Like the Germans in World War I, the Nazis were unable to break the code, which meant lives were saved. Other Native Americans, including those from Seminole, Muscogee and Kiowa tribes served as code talkers. In the Pacific theater of operations, the Japanese proved themselves to be masters at breaking U.S. Army and Navy codes.

Philip Johnston, son of a missionary, raised on a Nanjo reservation and a World War I veteran, was aware of the success of the Comanche code talker experiment. He approached the War Department in early 1942 about recruiting Navajo Indians to develop a code.

When the Navy finally showed interest, he arranged a demonstration on Feb. 28, 1942 for the commanding general of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet. This led ultimately to the recruitment of approximately 200 Navajo.

At Camp Elliot, outside of San Diego, Calif., the first 29 Navajo reported in May 1942 for Marine boot camp and then went on to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where they created a code that would baffle the Japanese and ultimately save thousands of lives during the Pacific campaign.

It is ironic to note that the Native American languages and warrior culture that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs spent years trying to destroy in Indian boarding schools became a secret weapon used to fight America's enemies.

When the war ended, the code talkers who fought around the globe returned to their lives and their reservations. Many, especially the Navajo, were sworn to secrecy in case their code would ever be needed in the future.

Recognition of their contribution to war-time victory and the thousands of lives saved by their unbroken codes did not come for another thirty years.