During the war, Native Americans worked as code talkers for the United States Marine Corps. Their main job was to transmit secret messages over military telephone or radios using codes based upon their native languages. They provided a valuable service – codes can be broken; languages must be studied, sometimes for a long time, before they can be easily understood.
The phrase “code talkers” is most often linked with Navajo Indians who worked for the Marines in the Pacific theater during World War II. However, Choctaw and Comanche soldiers were used by the United States Army in both World War I and World War II. In World War II, Navajo code talkers were most common.
The inspiration for code talkers began with Captain Frank D. Carranza in 1942. Initially, the Basque language was chosen. Speakers of this language hail from the Pyrenees mountains area of France and Spain. Early tests were successful; however, a shortage of Basque speakers caused problems as the war spread over the Pacific.
Philip Johnston proposed using the Navajo language for the United States Marine Corps.a phonetic alphabet was developed in which agreed-upon Navajo words would represent specific letters, similar to the English version (A = alpha, B = bravo, etc). other code terms were developed as well. Hand grenades became “potatoes”, while tanks became “tortoises”.
The Marines developed a code book for new recruits. Each code talker had to memorize all the English/Navajo and Navajo/English word associations in the book. To native Navajo speakers, the code talking “conversation” would have made no sense – they would only hear series of unrelated nouns and verbs. Navajo code talkers memorized each variation and practiced them under extreme circumstances.
Over time, more coded phrases were added to the program. At times, informal codes were developed for specific campaigns, then never used again. A meeting was held in Hawaii. Code talkers from all US Marine divisions met to standardize the code and update their code books. From there, each returned to their division to train the others.
Although Navajo code talkers were most famous for their work in World War II, they were also used during the Korean War. The use of code talkers ended near the beginning of the Vietnam War.
So why were Native American languages chosen over other languages? First, the people who spoke these languages lived only in the United States—code breakers from other countries would have great difficulty accessing native speakers of the language. Also, native languages like Navajo are spoken languages, with no written tradition. Native American languages have a unique grammatical structure which makes them challenging to learn. Finally, by coding the chosen Native American language, other speakers of that language who were not code talkers would find the message and comprehensible.
There are many Navajo people, but the Navajo language is rarely earned by those who are not Navajo. Very few books have been published on the language, so there were few clues to its understanding. With the large number of Navajo people across the United States, there were many recruits available.
Adolph Hitler knew the Army had used code talkers during World War I. He sent a team of anthropologists to the USA before the outbreak of World War II. Their mission was to learn Native American languages; however, there were too many languages and too many dialects.
In 1968, the operation was declassified. This was the first opportunity for code talkers to get any recognition for the services they provide. In 1982, Ronald Reagan named August 14 “National Code Talkers Day.” In 2000, Bill Clinton awarded the Congressional Gold medal to 29 World War II Navajo code talkers. The following year, George W. Bush personally presented the Congressional Gold medal to four of the five surviving code talkers (the fifth was unable to attend).