Noah's ARKives

(Archive - Week of December 17, 2005)

Use of the Native Indian Language for Secure Communications

American Indians have participated with distinction in United States military actions for more than 200 years. Their courage, determination, and fighting spirit were recognized by American military leaders as early as the 18th century.

"I think they [Indians] can be made of excellent use, as scouts and light troops," Gen. George Washington said in 1778.

Many tribes were involved in the War of 1812, and Indians fought for both sides as auxiliary troops in the Civil War. Scouting the enemy was recognized as a particular skill of the Native American soldier. In 1866, the U.S. Army established its Indian Scouts to exploit this aptitude.

The Scouts were active in the American West in the late 1800s and early 1900s, accompanying Gen. John J. Pershing's expedition to Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916. They were deactivated in 1947 when their last member retired from the Army in ceremonies at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.

Native Americans from Indian Territory were also recruited by Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and saw action in Cuba in the Spanish-American War in 1898. As the military entered the 20th century, American Indians had already made a substantial contribution through military service and were on the brink of playing an even larger role.

World War l
To confound the enemy, American forces in both World Wars used Indian personnel and their unique languages to insure secure communications. In World War I in France, the 142d Infantry Regiment had a company of Indians who spoke 26 different languages or dialects, only four or five of which had been reduced to writing.

Two Indian officers were selected to supervise a communications system staffed by Choctaw Indians. They were used in the regiment's operations in October 1918, in the Chufilly-Chardeny zone, transmitting in their native tongue a variety of open voice messages, relating to unit movements, which the enemy, who was completely surprised in the action, obviously could not break.

In the closing days of World War I, eight Choctaws were instrumental in helping the American Expeditionary Force to win several key battles in the Mousse-Argonne campaign, which proved to be the final big German push of that war, as "code talkers."

Of the eight Choctaws involved, one was from Bryan County, one from Choctaw County, and six from McCurtain County. They included:

Solomon Lewis, Bennington Mitchell Bobb, Smithville Ben Carterby (Bismark), Wright City Robert Taylor, Bokchito or Boswell Jeff Nelson, Kullitukle Pete Maytubby, Broken Bow James Edwards, Ida (now Battiest) Calvin Wilson, Goodwater.

German Code Experts
The German code experts were "flipping their wigs" trying to break the new American code. Within 24 hours after the Choctaw language was pressed into service, the tide of the battle had turned, and in less than 72 hours the Germans were retreating and the Allies were on full attack.

Since this occurrence was so near the end of the war, the Choctaw Code Talkers were apparently used in only this one campaign. They were praised by the company commanders and battalion commander, who told the eight Choctaws that he was "putting them in for medals." (The medals were never received.)

In World War II
In both major theaters of World War II, the U. S. Army used Indians in its signal communications operations. A group of 24 Navajos was assembled to handle telephone communications, using voice codes in their native tongue, between the Air Commander in the Solomon Islands and various airfields in the region. The U.S. Marine Corps also used Navajo code talkers extensively in the Pacific Theater. And in Europe, the 4th Signal Company of the Army's 4th Infantry Division was assigned 16 Comanches for employment as voice radio operators to transmit and receive messages in their own unwritten language.

L to R: Jim Lane, John Rope and Kassay in Yuma, AZ 1942

The Armed Services ran special training courses both in the United States and in the operational theaters to instruct Indians in the basic communications techniques and to develop standard military phraseology and common military terms for the languages and dialects where such words may never have existed. The success of the experiment in using Indian code talkers is attested to in the reports of military units and commanders in the several services.

Joe Morris, Sr. Served from 1944- 46 as a code talker on Guadalcanal, Guam, Saipan, Okinawa, and Tinstao, China

Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima: the Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the US Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language a code that the Japanese never broke.

The Idea
The idea to use Navajo for secure communications came from Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajos and one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. Johnston, reared on the Navajo reservation, was a World War I veteran who knew of the military's search for a code that would withstand all attempts to decipher it. He also knew that Native American languages - notably Choctaw - had been used in World War I to encode messages.

Johnston believed Navajo answered the military requirement for an indecipherable code because Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest. One estimate indicates that less than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language at the outbreak of World War II.

Early in 1942, Johnston met with Major General Clayton B. Vogel, the commanding general of Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, and his staff to convince them of the Navajo language's value as code. Johnston staged tests under simulated combat conditions, demonstrating that Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. Convinced, Vogel recommended to the Commandant of the Marine Corps that the Marines recruit 200 Navajos.

In May 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp. Then, at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, this first group created the Navajo code. They developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized during training.

After Training
Once a Navajo code talker completed his training, he was sent to a Marine unit deployed in the Pacific theater. The code talkers' primary job was to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios. They also acted as messengers, and performed general Marine duties.

Praise for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Connor had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error.

The Japanese, who were skilled code breakers, remained baffled by the Navajo language. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the US Army and Army Air Corps, they never cracked the code used by the Marines.

The Navajo code talkers even stymied a Navajo soldier taken prisoner at Bataan. (About 20 Navajos served in the US Army in the Philippines.) The Navajo soldier, forced to listen to the jumbled words of talker transmissions, said to a code talker after the war, "I never figured out what you guys who got me into all that trouble were saying."

In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. As of 1945, about 540 Navajos served as Marines. From 375 to 420 of those trained as code talkers; the rest served in other capacities.

Navajo remained potentially valuable as code even after the war. Their skill and courage saved both American lives and military engagements, and only recently earned recognition from the Government and the public.

When a Navajo code talker received a message, what he heard was a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words. The code talker first had to translate each Navajo word into its English equivalent. Then he used only the first letter of the English equivalent in spelling an English word. Thus, the Navajo words "wol-la-chee" (ant), "be-la-sana" (apple) and "tse-nill" (axe) all stood for the letter "a." One way to say the word "Navy" in Navajo code would be "tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)."

Most letters had more than one Navajo word representing them. Not all words had to be spelled out letter by letter. The developers of the original code assigned Navajo words to represent about 450 frequently used military terms that did not exist in the Navajo language. Several examples:

*"besh- lo" (iron fish) meant "submarine, " * "dah-he- tih-hi" (hummingbird) meant "fighter plane" * "debeh-li-zine" (black street) meant "squad."

Long unrecognized because of the continued value of their language as a security classified code, the Navajo code talkers of World War II were honored for their contributions to defense on Sept. 17, 1992, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. Thirty five code talkers, all veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps, attended the dedication of the Navajo code talker exhibit.

The exhibit includes a display of photographs, equipment and the original code, along with an explanation of how the code worked. Dedication ceremonies included speeches by then Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Atwood, U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, and Navajo President Peterson Zah. The Navajo veterans and their families traveled to the ceremony from their homes on the Navajo Reservation, which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The Navajo Code Talkers exhibit is part of the National Cryptologic Museum, Ft. George Meade, Maryland, and a regular stop on the Pentagon tour.

Arthur L. Money presents Charles Chibitty with a cased American flag that was flown over the capitol during ceremonies in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes. The 78- year-old Chibitty is the last surviving World War II Army Comanche "code talker." Money is the assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications, and intelligence. Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Broils, USA

In 1992, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney presented a certificate of appreciation to Charles Chibitty, the last surviving Comanche Code Talker, for service to the country. Chibitty has also received a special proclamation from the Governor of Oklahoma who honored him for his contribution both to Oklahoma and the United States. Nationally known for his Indian championship dancing, Chibitty died July 20, 2005.

In 1989, the French Government honored the Comanche Code Talkers, by presenting them the "Chevalier of the National Order of Merit."

Pictured to the left is Joe Morris Sr., one of the Navajo Codetalkers who was presented the special Codetalkers Medal in August 2002, at the San Diego Computer Museum of America. Joe was also given a complete TBY radio set by the Combat and Communications and Surveillance Museum in order that he may display it at the various shows that he attends. (Photo courtesy Warren Brader, Combat and Communications and Surveillance Museum, San Diego)

If their achievements had been hailed at the conclusion of the war, proper honors would have been bestowed upon the Navajo Code Talkers at that time. But the Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy, an oath they kept and honored, but at the same time, one that robbed them of the very accolades and place in history they deserved. The secrecy surrounding the code was maintained until it was declassified in 1968. Only then did a realization of the sacrifice and valor of these brave Native Americans emerge.

In April 2000, legislation was introduced to authorize the President of the United States to award a gold medal, on behalf of the Congress, to each of the original twenty-nine Navajo Code Talkers, as well as a silver medal to each man who later qualified as a Navajo Code Talker (MOS 642). The bill was signed law on December 21, 2000.

Of all the honors Congress can bestow, the awarding of a Congressional Gold or Silver Medal is often considered the most distinguished.

Each medal is specifically designed for the recipient, with the Secretary of the Treasury as the final judge of the design. After that, the design is sculptured, a dye is made, and the medal is struck at the Philadelphia Mint.

These medals are to express recognition by the United States of America and its citizens of the Navajo Code Talkers, to salute these brave and innovative Native Americans, to acknowledge the great contribution they made to the nation at a time of war, and to finally give them their rightful place in history.

American Medal of Honor Winners
In the 20th century, five American Indians have been among those soldiers to be distinguished by receiving the United States' highest military honor: the Medal of Honor. Given for military heroism "above and beyond the call of duty," these warriors exhibited extraordinary bravery in the face of the enemy and, in two cases, made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Jack C. Montgomery
A Cherokee from Oklahoma, and a First Lieutenant with the 45th Infantry Division Thunderbirds. On 22 February 1944, near Padiglione, Italy, Montgomery's rifle platoon was under fire by three echelons of enemy forces, when he single-handedly attacked all three positions, taking prisoners in the process. As a result of his courage, Montgomery's actions demoralized the enemy and inspired his men to defeat the Axis troops.

Ernest Childers
A Creek from Oklahoma, and a First Lieutenant with the 45th Infantry Division. Childers received the Medal of Honor for heroic action in 1943 when, up against machine gun fire, he and eight men charged the enemy. Although suffering a broken foot in the assault, Childers ordered covering fire and advanced up the hill, single-handedly killing two snipers, silencing two machine gun nests, and capturing an enemy mortar observer.

Van Barfoot
A Choctaw from Mississippi, and a Second Lieutenant in the Thunderbirds. On 23 May 1944, during the breakout from Anzio to Rome, Barfoot knocked out two machine gun nests and captured 17 German soldiers. Later that same day, he repelled a German tank assault, destroyed a Nazi fieldpiece and while returning to camp carried two wounded commanders to safety.

Mitchell Red Cloud Jr.
A Winnebago from Wisconsin, and a Corporal in Company E., 19th Infantry Regiment in Korea. On 5 November 1950, Red Cloud was on a ridge guarding his company command post when he was surprised by Chinese communist forces. He sounded the alarm and stayed in his position firing his automatic rifle and point-blank to check the assault. This gave his company time to consolidate their defenses. After being severely wounded by enemy fire, he refused assistance and continued firing upon the enemy until he was fatally wounded. His heroic action prevented the enemy from overrunning his company's position and gained time for evacuation of the wounded.

Charles George
A Cherokee from North Carolina, and Private First Class in Korea when he was killed on 30 November 1952. During battle, George threw himself upon a grenade and smothered it with his body. In doing so, he sacrificed his own life but saved the lives of his comrades. For this brave and selfless act, George was posthumously award the Medal of Honor in 1954.

Navajo Code Talkers
Congressional Gold Medal Recipients

Charley Tsosie Begay

Roy Begay

Samuel Hosteen Nez Begay

John Ashi Benally

Wilsie H. Bitsie

Cosey Stanley Brown

John Brown, Jr.

John Chee

Benjamin H. Cleveland

Eugene Roanhorse Crawford

David Curley

Lowell Smith Damon

George H. Dennison

James Dixon

Carl Nelson Gorman

Oscar B. Ilthma

Allen Dale June

Alfred Leonard

Johnny R. Manuelito, Sr.

William McCabe

Chester Nez

Jack Nez

Lloyd Oliver

Joe Palmer (aka Balmer Slowtalker)

Frank Danny Pete

Nelson S. Thompson

Harry Tsosie

John W. Willie, Jr.

William Yazzie



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