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December 18, 2014

American Indian code talkers not just in WW II

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Many Americans have recently been introduced to the American Indian code talkers of World War II. However, like the blind man who touched an elephants trunk and described that animal as being long and tubular, the current vision of the code talkers is incomplete.

There were 17 tribes, not just one, that provided our military forces in the battlefield with this direct form of voice radio communication. When Indian code talkers were brought into battlefield communications, their monitored messages became wholly incomprehensible to the enemy. 

Their codes were never broken because the enemy didnt realize that the languages used and the codes built upon them were the languages of different American Indian tribes.
Traditional techniques used code books by both the sender and the receiver and could take a half-hour or longer to understand. The code talkers, however, would speak, and the listener would translate into English immediately. 

Code talkers were used in World War I, too. Fifteen Choctaw from the Oklahoma 36th Infantry Division were first used on Oct. 28, 1918, in an assault that overwhelmed the German troops at Forest Ferme in France. They spoke in their everyday language (unencoded everyday language is called Type 2 messaging) and were viewed as responsible for the halt of many German offensives and for important advances by American forces.

As word spread in military circles about their success, other Comanche, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Osage and Yankton Sioux were recruited by other units.

Ironically, at this same time, the U.S. governments official Indian assimilation policy was marked by the prohibition of the use of their native languages by Indian children and adults. The object of this policy was to wholly eradicate the Indians cultures, religions and languages and forcefully promote Indians assimilation into the white society and to adopt the English language. This policy was largely a failure.

In 1940 the U.S. Army viewed the Nazi conquests as a forecast of an imminent war in which the U.S. would become involved. It recruited Indians to develop new codes that were built upon their native languages.

These codes were even more confounding to a listener — even from the same tribe — who was not trained. (The code built upon a native language was called Type 1 messaging.) This program included 17 Chippewa and Oneida, 17 Comanche, 19 Sac and Fox (Mesquakie) and, later in 1941, 11 Hopi.

During World War II the Assiniboine, Cherokee, Chocktaw Kiowa, Pawnee, Sioux (both Dakota and Lakota), Menominee, Muscogee Creek and Seminole were also recruited for Type 2 code talking. Upon learning of the Armys success, in 1942 the Marine Corps recruited 420 Navajo and began to train them in Type 1 code talking.

The Navajo code talkers performance at Iwo Jima was so critical in that battle that Major Howard Conner stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken the island.”

When World War II ended, a threat of war with the Soviet Union loomed. All code talkers were sworn to secrecy. They took this pledge seriously. In 1997 a reporter telephoned Clarence Wolfguts of the Pine Ridge Sioux to schedule an interview, having learned that he had been a Sioux code talker in World War II.

Wolfguts’ wife told the reporter that he had made an awful mistake. ”Clarence,” she said, ”was never any code talker.” As it turned out, Wolfguts was a member of the Pine Ridge Sioux code-talker team. For 53 years of marriage, he never broke his pledge of secrecy — not even to his wife.

The Navajo served in the Pacific both in the Corps and, together with Muscogee Creek, in the Navy. Lakota were Army code talkers in several Pacific Island battles. Muscogee Creek were used in the battle of Attu in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. Comanche served with the Fourth Signal Company in the Fourth Infantry Division Motorized in Europe.

The Navajo have received deserved honor for their military service. However, similar recognition waits for those of the other 16 tribes.

In 1963 Gen. Charles de Gaulle, then president of France, created the new Ordre Nationale du Merite (National Order of Merit), the third highest medal awarded by the French government. Among its first recipients chosen for this high honor in the First Rank were the Comanche code talkers whom de Gaulle acknowledged as being invaluable to the Allied victory in France.

The code talkers continued to work throughout World War II and, later, some served in the Korean War and in Vietnam. During their long service, their codes were never broken and, while many were killed in combat, not one of them was ever captured.


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Bernard Bossom is executive director, and William C. Meadows is director of research, of the national Native American Veterans Oral History Project, which is sponsored by the Seattle-based Soaring Eagle Foundation. The project is to be placed on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
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