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SEVERAL DAYS ago in celebrating Thanksgiving here at SimanaitisSays, I cited “more than a dollop of respect for Navajo, Cherokee, and Choctaw code talkers,” World War II communications personnel whose languages were unknown to the Axis powers. With a bit more research, I learned more about these and other Native American achievements and how they were carried out. The story involves more than just World War II, more than these three Nations, and it’s more nuanced than just speaking languages unknown to the enemy.
Not just World War II. As a brief survey of code talkers, Native Americans transmitted messages under fire during World War I. In the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Egypt had Nubians as code talkers. During the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, China had code talkers speaking Wenzhounese (a particularly complex version of Wu dielect and considered a living fossil of classical Chinese). During the 1991–2001 ethnic-based wars and insurgencies in the former Yugoslavia, Welshmen found employment in transmitting routine communications.
Other Native Americans. According to Wikipedia, “The first known use of Native Americans… to transmit messages under fire was a group of Cherokee troops used by the American 30th Infantry Division serving alongside the British during the Second Battle of the Somme.” According to the Division Signal Officer, the first Cherokee messages occurred in September 1918, when their unit was under British command at the time.
Also during WWI, a company commander in the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division, overheard two of his men conversing in Choctaw. Eventually, there was a communications group staffed by 18 Native Americans of the Choctaw Nation. According to Wikipedia, “They helped the American Expeditionary Forces win several key battles in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France.”
Soldiers from other tribes, including the Cheyenne, Cherokee, Comanche, Osage, and Yankton Sioux, also took part in WWI communications. Army.Mil Features notes, “Previous to their arrival in France, the Germans had broken every American code used, resulting in deaths of many Soldiers. However, the Germans never broke the Indians’ ‘code,’ and these Soldiers became affectionately known as ‘code talkers.’ ”
World War II. Hitler knew of the success of WWI code talkers. Before the outbreak of WWII, he sent some 30 anthropologists to the U.S. to learn Native American languages. This had only mixed results, but it made the U.S. military initially wary.
Philip Johnson was a WWI vet who, as a son of a missionary, had been raised on a Navajo reservation and spoke Navajo fluently. In early 1942, he demonstrated that Navajo speakers could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds, versus the 30 minutes required by machines of the time. The first 29 Navajo recruits attended boot camp in May 1942.
Seventeen Comanche code talkers took part in the Invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944. Other tribes participating in WWII operations included the Assiniboine Sioux, Chippewa, Creek, Dakota, Fox, Hopi, Kiowa, Lakota, Menominee, Meshwaki, Oneida, Pawnee, Sac, Seminole, and Winnebago. As of 2013, 33 tribes have been identified as having been involved in U.S. code talking efforts.
Not just speaking the language. The most effective code talkers weren’t just communicating in their native tongue. Code talkers were trained in another layer of encryption, with special meanings assigned to their words. In Comanche code, for example, their word for “turtle” meant tank; “pregnant airplane” meant bomber, and “crazy white man” meant Adolph Hitler.
So refined were these codes that other tribal speakers might recognize only a jumble of native nouns and verbs. In fact, lamentably enough, one Navajo soldier captured by the Japanese was tortured when he claimed an intercepted message made no sense to him. As a non-code talker, he was telling the truth.
Code talkers honored—finally. Sadly enough, official recognition of code talkers was late in coming. The operations weren’t even declassified until 1968. President Reagan proclaimed August 14, 1982, as Navajo Code Talkers Day. On December 21, 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and President Clinton signed a Public Law awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the 29 original Navajo code talkers and Silver ones to others of the Navajo Nation.
On September 17, 2007, 18 Choctaw code talkers were posthumously awarded the Texas Medal of Valor. Finally, on November 15, 2008, The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 was signed by President George W. Bush in recognizing other Native American code talkers in both wars.
A long time in coming, yet so highly deserved. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017