Chapter 4: Code Talking
Intelligence and Bravery
The Code Talkers’ role in war required intelligence and bravery. Code Talkers developed and memorized a special code. They endured some of the most dangerous battles and remained calm under fire. They served proudly, with honor and distinction. Their actions proved critical in several important campaigns, and they are credited with saving thousands of American and allied lives.
The American Indian Warrior Tradition
For thousands of years, American Indian men have protected their communities and lands. “Warrior” is an English word that has come to describe them. However, their traditional roles involved more than fighting enemies. They cared for people and helped in many ways, in any time of difficulty. They would do anything to help their people survive, including laying down their own lives.
Warriors were regarded with the utmost respect in their communities. Boys trained from an early age to develop the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical strength they would need to become warriors. Many tribes had special warrior societies, which had their own ceremonies, songs, dances, and regalia that they wore. Usually, a warrior had to prove himself before being asked to join a warrior society. It was a great honor to be chosen in this way.
Despite everything that American Indians had endured in the past, the warrior tradition—the tradition of protecting their people—called many of them to serve in the United States military. They cared about their communities and the lands on which their people had lived for thousands of years. Many of them also served out of a sense of patriotism, wanting to defend the United States. For some American Indians, the military offered economic security and an opportunity for education, training, and world travel.
More than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I—about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at that time. During World War II, when the total American Indian population was less than 400,000, an estimated 44,000 Indian men and 800 women served.
Recruitment & Training
In World War I, Choctaw and other American Indians transmitted battle messages in their tribal languages by telephone. Although not used extensively, the World War I telephone operators played a key role in helping the United States Army win several battles in France that brought about the end of the war.
Beginning in 1940, the army recruited Comanche, Meskwaki, Chippewa, Oneida, and later, Hopi, people to transmit messages in code during World War II. The army had special American Indian recruiters working to find Comanche in Oklahoma who would enlist. Members of other tribes served as Code Talkers but they were not specifically recruited by the military.
The Marine Corps recruited Navajo Code Talkers in 1941 and 1942. Philip Johnston was a World War I veteran who had heard about the successes of the Choctaw telephone squad. Johnston, although not Indian, had grown up on the Navajo reservation. He suggested to the Marine Corps that the Navajo and other tribes could be very helpful in maintaining communications secrecy. After viewing a demonstration of messages sent in the Navajo language, the Marine Corps was so impressed that they recruited twenty-nine Navajos in two weeks to develop a code within their language.
After the Navajo code was developed, the Marine Corps established a Code Talking school. As the war progressed, more than 400 Navajos were eventually recruited as Code Talkers. The training was intense. Following their basic training, the Code Talkers completed extensive training in communications and memorizing the code.
Some Code Talkers enlisted; others were drafted. Many of the Code Talkers who served were underage and had to lie about their age to enlist. Some were just fifteen years old.
All I thought when I went in, the Marine Corps was going to give me a belt of ammunition and a rifle, a steel helmet, and a uniform. Go and shoot some of those Japanese. That’s what I thought; but later on they told us differently, you know different style, purpose of, you know, why they got us in.
That was about 1940, and when I got home I said, ‘I found out they was recruiting twenty Comanches who could talk their tribe fluently for a special unit,’ and I told dad, ‘I’d like to go.’
We were drafted. They made us go in. I didn’t volunteer.
Constructing The Code
Many American Indian Code Talkers in World War II used their everyday tribal languages to convey messages. A message such as “send more ammunition to the front” was just translated into the Native language and sent over the radio. These became known as Type Two Codes.
However, the Navajo, Comanche, Hopi, and Meskwaki speakers developed and used special codes based on their languages. These became known as Type One Codes.
To develop their Type One Code, the original twenty-nine Navajo Code Talkers first came up with English words for each letter of the alphabet. Since they had to memorize all the words, they used things that were familiar to them, such as kinds of animals. Then, they translated those words into Navajo.
So we start talking about different things, you know, animals, sea creatures, birds, eagles, hawks, and all those domestic animals. And so, why don’t we use those names of different animals—from A to Z. So A, we took a red ant that we live with all the time. B we took a bear, Yogi the Bear, C a cat, D a dog, E an elk, F, fox, G, a goat and so on down the line.
Test Your Knowledge
Here are a few examples of Type One Codes for letters in the Alphabet:
Try to translate this coded message by turning each of the Navajo words into one letter of the alphabet. Click the translate button to see the answer.
MOASI NE-AHS-JAH LHA-CHA-EH DZEH GAH DZEH MOASI DZEH TKIN A-KEH-DI-GLINI DZEH LHA-CHA-EH
This is the English translation:
Here's how the message is decoded:
MOASI (C - cat), NE-AHS-JAH (O - owl), LHA-CHA-EH (D - dog), DZEH (E - elk), GAH (R - rabbit), DZEH (E - elk), MOASI (C - cat), DZEH (E - elk), TKIN (I - ice), A-KEH-DI-GLINI (V -victor), DZEH (E - elk), LHA-CHA-EH (D – dog)
Creating Special Code Words
The Navajo, Comanche, Hopi, and others also had to develop special words for World War II military terms, such as types of planes, ships, or weapons. They were given picture charts that showed them the items. After looking at the pictures, they came up with words that seemed to fit the pictures.
Well, when they first got us in there for Code Talkers, we had to work that out among our own selves, so we didn’t have a word for tank. And the one said it’s like a [Comanche words] he said, it’s just like a turtle, you know. It has a hard shell and it moves and so we called it a wakaree ́e, a turtle.
Test Your Knowledge
Try to match the Navajo code words and their English translation to the picture featured on the screen.
Click the word to see if your answer is correct!
Sending Messages in Code
On the battlefield, the work of sending coded messages was extremely serious. Being able to keep messages secret could make the difference between winning and losing a battle—or affect how many lives were saved or lost.
Code Talkers did more than speak into a hand-held radio or phone. They had to know how to operate both wire and radio equipment, and they often had to carry it on their backs. They had to know how to set up and maintain the electronic communication wires, or lines. Sometimes their messages were broadcast over a wide area, helping to direct bigger operations. At other times, messages related to a smaller group, such as a platoon.
Code Talkers were given the messages in English. Without writing them down, they translated and sent them to another Code Talker. After the message was transmitted and received, it was written down in English and entered into a message logbook. The Code Talkers also sent messages in English. Messages were only coded when absolute security was needed.
The commanding officer, they give you a message that’s written. It’s usually short, talking about how much ammunition and certain map area that marines are getting killed. They need more machine gun ammunition, all that. You translate that as small as you can.
Language In Use
Here is a sample message:
Request artillery and tank fire at 123B, Company E move 50 yards left flank of Company D.
Here is the translation of Navajo code words used to send it:
Ask for many big guns and tortoise fire at 123 Bear tail drop Mexican ear mouse owl victor elk 50 yards left flank ocean fish Mexican deer. (Sally McClain, Navajo Weapon, 2001)
Locations Served in WWII
The Navajo and Hopi were assigned to service in the Pacific in the war against Japan. The Comanches fought the Germans in Europe, and the Meskwakis fought them in North Africa. Code Talkers from other tribes fought at various locations in Europe, the Pacific, North Africa, and elsewhere.
Code Talkers Remember The War
Like all soldiers, Code Talkers carry many memories of their war experiences. Some memories are easy to revisit. Others are very difficult. Some veterans do not really like to discuss these memories, while others can more comfortably recall them. They remember how fierce and dangerous some of the fighting was. Some remember when their fellow soldiers were wounded or killed. They remember the noise and the violence of war. Others recall being prisoners of war. Sometimes they have more pleasant memories of different cultures and places that they had never seen before and probably would never see again. They also remember how their American Indian religious beliefs were important to them during the war.
The, uh Mount Suribachi was on our left side just looming up. And here we started going over aboard the ship going down the net into a landing craft ship, a smaller ship. We took all our gear, then we went down there. And we circulate round and round for awhile until they say go. When they say go, all these little bitty landing ships they go together right down to the beach. Before we hit the beach, the uh, officer on that ship he tell us to pray in your own belief. Me I just took out my corn pollen as I was told by our medicine man and then pray. So, I think some of the kids join me to pray.
Listen to a recreation of Comanche code talking with sound effects.Play Music Clip
Utah Beach in Normandy was something else. Everybody asked me if I would go through it again, and I said, no, but I could train the younger ones how we used our language and let them go ahead and do it because it was hell.
A cup of hot water in the morning for coffee. A little bowl of soup at noon, then two potatoes at night. That’s what you live on. That’s what I lived on for three years.
We prayed to the sun, stars, whatever. It’s our way of keeping in contact with somebody. Our superior or whatever you might call him. That’s how we do it.
4.8 Carl Gorman in the War
Carl Gorman joined the United States Marine Corps in 1942 when he learned they were recruiting Navajo speakers. He went through all the difficult training and was one of the original twenty-nine Navajos who were given the secret mission of developing the Navajo code. Private First Class (PFC) Gorman answered one of his officers who had asked why Navajo were able to memorize the complex code so quickly: “For us, everything is memory, it’s part of our heritage. We have no written language. Our songs, our prayers, our stories, they’re all handed down from grandfather to father to children—and we listen, we hear, we learn to remember everything. It’s part of our training.” (Henry and Georgia Greenberg, Power of a Navajo: Carl Gorman, the Man and His Life, 1996)
Mr. Gorman served in four important Pacific battles: Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Tinian, and Saipan. In 1942, he was stricken by malaria, a severe tropical disease, yet he continued to fight. In 1944, Mr. Gorman was evacuated from Saipan suffering both from the effects of malaria and shell shock. Shell shock is the psychological effect of being in extremely stressful and dangerous situations, such as combat. Malaria is an infectious disease caused by a parasite spread through the bite of a mosquito. Malaria was a common disease in the Pacific islands where much of the war against Japan was fought. Mr. Gorman had to be hospitalized and took many months to recover.
Charles Chibitty was one of seventeen Comanche men who served as Code Talkers in World War II. In 1941, when he learned that Comanche were being recruited to speak their language, he volunteered for the United States Army. Mr. Chibitty helped develop the code that the Comanche used and participated in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, including the D-Day landing in Normandy. He attained the rank of corporal.
Listen to the quote
I was afraid and if I didn’t talk to the Creator, something was wrong. Because when you’re going to go in battle, that’s the first thing you’re going to do, you’re going to talk to the Creator.
Reflection and Discussion Questions
How did Code Talkers of World War II continue American Indian warrior traditions? Why is that significant (important)?
What were some of the most difficult challenges the Code Talkers faced in war?