Navajo code talkers–once unable to even talk about the role they played in World War II–are suddenly all over the news after President Donald Trump’s ill-conceived and painfully tone-deaf remarks using derogatory language to slam a political opponent. The president was presiding over a ceremony meant to honor the veterans’ contributions; sadly, the veterans’ contributions have been lost in the noise of the subsequent brouhaha. Let’s take a closer look at the veterans and their accomplishments and honor their part in WWII:
1. While the Navajo Code Talkers are most famous from World War II, the military used indigenous language as a means for code during World War I. Then, members of the Choctaw nation wrote and transcribed messages to help the war effort after their commanding officers overheard them speaking Choctaw. France bestowed the entire Choctaw Nation the Chevalier de l’Order National du Merite in gratitude for the vital work the men did.
2. The idea of using Navajo as a way to create unbreakable codes against the Axis Powers–Nazi Germany, Japan, and Italy– in WWII came from a veteran of WWI. Phillip Johnson, the white son of a Christian missionary, had grown up on a Navajo Reservation and had learned the language in his youth. It is possible that he came across the idea of indigenous languages being used as code during his service in WWI. After Pearl Harbor, he proposed using Navajo, specifically, as a code to the Marines.
3. There were 29 original code talkers. By the end of the war, there were more than 400. Native Americans from at least 14 other nations and tribes were among those 400, working to keep the Axis from breaking encrypted, vitally important information.
4. During the time they served, Native Americans were subject to many racist and unconscionable policies in the United States. Some states actively worked to bar Native Americans from voting by using similar tactics that were used to keep African Americans from the polls. In fact, their right to vote wasn’t secured until the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
5. Code talkers volunteered and were drafted. Some were so excited to participate that they lied about their age, while others did not wish to participate but had no choice. Roughly 25 percent of all Native American men were in the military during WWII; the highest of any group of people during the war.
6. Codes were split into two types: Type One and Type Two. Type One was a code created from Native American language and used for very important messages that could not run the risk of being broken. Type Two was a code that basically was a direct translation from English to Navajo and the back to English.
7. Code talkers were integral to the success of individual battles and campaigns. They were on Utah Beach during D-Day and have been credited with the reason Marines were able to take Iwo Jima.
8. For more than 20 years, code talkers couldn’t speak about or receive recognition for their contributions during WWII. Only in 1968 was the program declassified.
9. Recognition for these brave men has been a long time coming. August 14, 1982 was declared by then-President Ronald Reagan as Navajo Code Talkers’ Day. In 2000, the original 29 code talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medals; in 2007, all surviving code talkers from all tribes were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
By J.G. Noll