Native Americans played a critical role in several world wars, supporting the United States as code takers. Most well known were the 400 or so Native American Marines whose job it was to transmit secret tactical messages. The actual code was transmitted via their native language over military telephone and/or radio communications nets.
Especially notable was the role Navajo speakers played during World War II in the Pacific Theatre While code talking was originally pioneered by Choctaw Indians during World War I, the impact in the pacific often overshadows it. Navajo has complex grammar and at the time was an unwritten language making it an indecipherable code. There was no chance that anyone without extensive training and exposure to the language would ever be able to decipher it. What’s truly amazing about the Navajo code was the speed with which it would be encoded, transmitted and decoded. While machines at the time took 30 minutes, the Navajos took just 20 seconds to complete the same task.
It was 1942 when the Navajos first attended boot camp and the code was formally developed. Several Navajo terms still live on in marine culture, such as the terms “ink sticks” to refer to pens (not to be confused with printer ink cartridges which clearly didn’t exist at the time).
Perhaps the most glaring evidence into the impact Navajos had on the war was when Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer declared, “were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken Iwo Jima.” The use of Navajo code actually continued right through the Korean War, and even into the early stages of the Vietnam War.
Sadly code talkers received little in the way of formal recognition and thanks from the government. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the government officially recognized code talkers for the critical role they played. In 1982 code talkers were given a Certificate of Recognition by President Regan. And then in 2000 US Congress and President Clinton awarded Congressional Gold Medals to 29 World War II Navajo code talkers.
In recent years, there has been some appreciation of their role in the media in both films and TV. One of the best sources was a history programme which was broadcast on the BBC several years about cryptography and code breakers though the ages. It includes the role of the Navajo in the second world war among the story of cryptography. You can still watch it on the BBC iPlayer archive if you’re lucky although it will expire soon. This article shows you how to access the archive from outside the United kingdom – BBC iPlayer France.