Napoleon once said, “the secret of war lies in the communications.” If he were around today, he might have revised it to, “secure communications.”
During World Wars I and II, the military needed a quick and reliable means of protecting its radio, telephone and telegraphic messages from enemy intelligence. American Indian tribes had their own languages and dialects that few outside the tribes understood, and many of their languages were not even written down. Their languages were ideal for the task at hand and fortunately, a large number of Indians had joined the armed forces.
World War I
In France during World War I, the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division, had a company of Indians who spoke 26 languages and dialects. Two Indian officers were selected to supervise a communications system staffed by 18 Choctaw. The team transmitted messages relating to troop movements and their own tactical plans in their native tongue. Soldiers from other tribes, including the Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Osage and Yankton Sioux also were enlisted to communicate as code talkers. Previous to their arrival in France, the Germans had broken every American code used, resulting in the deaths of many Soldiers. However, the Germans never broke the Indians’ “code,” and these Soldiers became affectionately known as “code talkers.”
World War II
During World War II, the Army used Indians in its signal communications operations in both the European and Pacific theaters of operations. Student code talkers were instructed in basic military communications techniques. The code talkers then developed their own words for military terms that never existed in their own native tongue. For instance, the world for “colonel” was translated to “silver eagle,” “fighter plane” became “hummingbird,” “minesweeper” became “beaver,” “half-track” became “race track,” and “pyrotechnic” became “fancy fire.”
The Army and Marine Corps used a group of 24 Navajo code talkers in the Pacific Theater, who fought in the many bloody island campaigns. In North Africa, eight Soldiers from the Meskwaki tribe in Iowa served as code talkers in the 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Division. In Europe, the 4th Signal Company, 4th Infantry Division, was assigned 17 Comanche code talkers. From the D-Day landings at Normandy in June 1944, to the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge, they kept the lines of communications secure.
Soldiers from other tribes, including the Kiowa, Winnebago, Chippewa, Creek, Seminole, Hopi, Lakota, Dakota, Menominee, Oneida, Pawnee, Sac, Fox and Choctaw served during the war. Some were killed and wounded and at least one was taken prisoner. As a testament to their professionalism, the enemy was never able to break the code talkers’ communications.
Many of the code talkers continued in their military careers, serving during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
For many years, the code talkers’ work remained classified. Then on June 18, 2002, Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act to recognize the important part that these Soldiers played in “performing highly successful communications operations of a unique type that greatly assisted in saving countless lives and in hastening the end of World War I and World War II.” The act further states that the code talkers operated “under some of the heaviest combat action … around the clock to provide information … such as the location of enemy troops and the number of enemy guns.”
Congress recognized the remarkableness of the code talkers’ achievements, despite societal discrimination against them. The act states that at “… a time when Indians were discouraged from practicing their native culture, a few brave men used their cultural heritage, their language, to help change the course of history.”