Code Talkers

All the services, like the army, and divisions and companies, and battalions, regiments . . . we just gave them clan names. Airplanes, we named after birds . . . like the buzzard is bomber, and the hawk is a dive bomber, and the patrol plane is a crow, and the hummingbird is the fighter.

William McCabe, (Diné [Navajo]) United States Marine Corps

During World Wars I and II, hundreds of Native American servicemen from more than twenty tribes used their Indigenous languages to send secret, coded messages enemies could never break. Known as code talkers, these men helped U.S. forces achieve military victory in some of the greatest battles of the twentieth century.

Eight men of the Choctaw telephone squad posing for a photograph at Camp Merritt, New Jersey

Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Indiana University

Choctaw telephone squad, returned from fighting in World War I. Camp Merritt, New Jersey, June 7, 1919. From left: Corporal Solomon Bond Louis, Private Mitchell Bobb, Corporal James Edwards, Corporal Calvin Wilson, Private Joseph (James) Davenport, Captain Elijah W. Horner.

In addition to Choctaw language speakers, Ho-Chunks, Eastern Cherokees, Comanches, Cheyennes, Yankton Sioux, and Osages were among the Native men who served as code talkers during World War I.

Ultimately, approximately 534 American Indian code talkers were deployed in World War II. The U.S. Marine Corps, which operated the largest code-talking program, sent approximately 420 Diné (Navajo) language speakers to help win the war in the Pacific. In Europe, Comanche code talkers participated in the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France as well as many of the major campaigns that crushed the Third Reich.

Six Meskwaki Code talkers in uniform

State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa

Meskwaki code talkers, February 1941. Top, left to right: Judie Wayne Wabaunasee, Melvin Twin, Dewey Roberts Sr., Mike Wayne Wabaunasee; Bottom: Edward Benson, Frank Jonas Sanache Sr., Willard Sanache, Dewey Youngbear. The men were assigned to the 168th Infantry, 34th Red Bull Division and were sent to North Africa, where they participated in the attacks on Italy under heavy shelling. Three of the men were captured and confined to Italian and German prison camps.

Consequently, in 1940 and 1941, the army recruited Comanche, Meskwaki, Chippewa, and Oneida language speakers to train as code talkers; they later added eight Hopi speakers. In April 1942, the Marine Corps trained twenty-nine Navajo men in combat and radio communications. They went on to serve as the foundation of the largest code-talking program in the military.

Navajo code talkers Henry Bahe Jr. and George H. Kirk kneeling in the jungle working with military equipment

National Archives photo no. 127-MN-69889-B

Navajo code talkers Corporal Henry Bahe Jr. and Private First Class George H. Kirk. Bougainville, South Pacific, December 1943.

Dispersed across six marine divisions fighting in the Pacific, the Navajo radiomen saw action in many pivotal battles, including Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Tarawa, Makin, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

The first Native code talkers served during World War I, using tribal languages to transmit messages that German eavesdroppers found impossible to decipher. The code talkers of 1918 made a lasting impression on the U.S. military.

Code talker Charles Chibitty and three other soldiers landing on Utah beach

Courtesy of the Oklahoma State Senate

Wayne Cooper, Indian Code Talkers, 2000. Oil on canvas.

The painting depicts code talker Charles Chibitty (Comanche) after landing at Utah Beach during World War II.