The Power of Language: The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II
Navajo code talkers in World War II.
In addition to the violence and bloodshed that took place in World War II, the quieter world of cryptography also existed. Cryptography is the skill of writing codes, accompanied by cryptanalysis, or “codebreaking.” During the war, cryptography was used by the Allies and the Axis powers to infiltrate information and communication systems. In an effort to create an unbreakable code, the United States military used code talkers: Native Americans from 33 different tribes who used their tribal language to send secret communications on the battlefield. These Native American code talkers, the most famous of which were the Navajo, were used to coordinate such “massive operations, […] as the assault on Iwo Jima, without revealing any information to the enemy.” By using Navajo code talkers, the United States was not only helping to secure victory in the war, but was also revealing its failure to completely wipe out Native American culture through assimilation.
Among the first code talkers were the Choctaw Telephone Squad and others who had surfaced in World War I. In World War II, the U.S. military had developed a policy meant specifically to recruit and train Native Americans to become code talkers. In 1942, twenty-nine Navajo code talkers that had been recruited by the Marine Corps completed their basic training in addition to developing and memorizing a military code by using their unwritten language, placed in a guarded room until the coding was complete. As a result, two types of code were created: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 code was made up of twenty-six Navajo terms that stood for individual English letters that spelled out a word. Type 2 code, on the other hand, consisted of words that could be translated directly from English into Navajo. The Navajo code talkers created a dictionary with 211 words, later expanded to 411, including military words and names that did not originally exist in the Navajo language. For example, according to the Navajo Code Talker’s Dictionary, “tank” was coded as chay-da-gahi, which literally translated as “turtle” in the Navajo language. Even with countries, alternative words were used: Germany was coded as besh-be-cha-he, which means “iron hat” in the Navajo language. Not only would a codebreaker need to contend with a foreign, unwritten language, but they had to know the phonetic spellings and vocabulary adaptations in the code book.
On the battlefield, one person would “operate the radio while the second person would relay and receive messages in the Native language and translate them into English.” This person-to-person line of contact was very different from code-breaking machines, like the German Enigma machine, which took time to code a message once it was entered into the machine, and took time to decode that same message once it was received on the other end. Code talkers could translate three lines of English in 20 seconds, which was much faster than the 30 minutes it took a code-breaking machine. The value of the Navajo code talkers, therefore, was not only in the fact that they knew a unique language very well and adapted it to a new situation, but also because of the speed in getting the messages across.
Working as a code talker was also very dangerous. This was especially true in the Pacific, where Japanese soldiers deliberately targeted officers, medics, and radiomen. This meant that code talkers had to constantly move as they transmitted their messages because the direct person-to-person contact would have been broken otherwise if a code talker was injured or killed in battle. Nevertheless, the Navajo code remained unbroken, and the code talkers were essential in battles like those at Utah Beach and Normandy.
Not only were the Navajo code talkers crucial for the Allied victory in World War II, but they also revealed America’s failure to completely wipe out Native American culture through assimilation. Part of America’s unjust history with the Native Americans includes the removal of Native American children from their homes and families, and their subsequent placement into boarding schools operated by the federal government and the churches in an effort to follow the policy of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” This boarding school era lasted from 1860 to 1978, stripping Native American children of everything associated with Native life including long hair, traditional clothing, contact with family and community members, and language. Students speaking a native language were physically punished. Therefore, when Native American language became essential for World War II, and Navajo code talkers were recruited for the purpose of using the language they had been punished for, the irony was evident. Nevertheless, once the Navajo code talkers, and code talkers from other tribes, returned to America, they were told to keep their work secret. Because the codes they had created remained unbroken, the U.S. military wanted to keep the program classified in case code talkers would be needed again in a future war. However, the code talker program was declassified in 1968 and, although national recognition was slow, the Navajo and other code talkers received Congressional Gold Medals in 2001, defying history with the power of language.
Navajo code talkers are awarded Congressional Gold Medals.
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Pember, Mary Annette. “The Traumatic Legacy of Indian Boarding Schools.” The Atlantic,
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Paris, Jessica. “1942: Navajo Code Talkers.” Intelligence.gov, 2019.
“US Indian Boarding School History.” The National Native American Boarding School Healing
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