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Code Talkers

Page history last edited by Lydia Baker-Crawley 14 years, 12 months ago

Code Talker



During World Wars I and II Native Americans played a vital role to victory.  After several successful attempts by the enemy to break the US radio codes, Native Americans were called upon to use their native languages to encode messages to and from the battlefield.  These codes were never broken and remained a closely guarded secret for decades.





Native Americans have served the US Military in both world wars to send and decipher secret, “coded” transmissions in their native languages.  Since most Native American languages are not linguistically linked to any other languages on earth, the codes remained unbroken and ensured the safety and integrity of Allied orders.

During the waning days of WWI, members of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma became the first Code Talkers.  With the assistance of these men, Americans were able to win several battles in Mousse – Argonne campaign, the last German attempt at advancement.

Germans were able to decipher all previous attempts at coded transmissions.  Desperate, the Americans called upon the eighteen Choctaw soldiers serving in the 36th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces.  An officer had overheard the men speaking in their native language and suggested each be placed with a field command.

As the men translated radio messages, telephoned, and wrote field commands, the Germans were bewildered, which allowed the Americans to turn the battle around within 24 hours.  Within 72 hours, the Germans were in retreat. 

During WWII more Native speakers were tapped to translate and code messages.  In the years 1939 to 1945, Hopi, Choctaw, Comanche, Kiowa, Winnebago, Seminole, Navajo, and Cherokee were recruited by the Army for the purpose of Code Talking.  While most Americans know of the Navajo Code Talkers, few know of the full range of people needed for this purpose. 



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This video briefly talks of the WWI Choctaw Code Talkers.  It emphasises not only the importance of their role to the victory, but the way they have been lost to history. 



The Navajo

Navajo Code Talker


The Marines tapped the most famous of the Code Talkers, the Navajo.  Their system was simplistic, but effective.   In the words of Chester Nez, a code talker, “Everything we used in the code was what we lived with on the reservation every day, like the ants, the birds, bears.  Thus, the term for tank was ‘turtle’, a tank destroyer was ‘tortoise killer’.  A battleship was ‘whale’.  A hand grenade was ‘potato’, and plain old bombs were ‘eggs’.  A fighter plane was ‘hummingbird’, and a torpedo plane ‘swallow’.  A sniper was ‘pick ‘em off’.  Pyrotechnic was ‘fancy fire’” (Hitt 2). 

At the height of the war, the Marines employed 425 Code Talkers.  Each Code Talker was accompanied by a personal bodyguard and each Code Talker held a solemn oath to commit suicide rather than reveal the secret upon capture.  The body guards were even under orders, in case of imminent capture, to kill the Code Talker.



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 This video is of an interview with a Navajo Code Talker.  It is in Navajo with an English translater.  It is a very personal account of what it was like to be a Code Talker during WWII.



         Navajo Code Terms

            A  Wol-la-chee            Ant

            B  Shush                      Bear

            C   Moasi                     Cat

            D   Be                           Deer

            E   Dzeh                       Elk

            F   Ma-e                       Fox

            G   Klizzie                   Goat

            H   Lin                         Horse

            I    Tkin                        Ice

            J    Tkele-cho-gi         Jackass

            K   Klizzie-yazzle       Kid

            L    Dibeh-yazzie         Lamb

            M   Na-as-tso-si           Mouse

            N    Nesh-chee             Nut

            O    Ne-ahs-jah            Owl

            P    Bi-so-dih               Pig

            Q    Ca-yeilth               Quiver

            R    Gah                       Rabbit

            S     Dibeh                   Sheep

            T     Than-zie               Turkey

            U     No-da-ih              Ute

            V     A-ken-di-glini       Victor

            W    Gloe-ih                 Weasel

            X     Al-an-as-dzoh      Cross

            Y     Tash-as-zih           Yucca

            Z     Besh-do-gliz         Zinc

(Davis 385)

Each term had a military application.  Words such as ne-ahs-jah (owl) was used for plane, aircraft carrier became tsidi-ney-ye-hi (bird carrier), and the Navajo for potato was used for grenade as well as the word for turtle became tank (Davis 385).  By encoding the military terms thusly, the Code Talkers were able to communicate with each other without the enemy becoming wise to Allied plans.


Awards and Recognition

Code Talker medal



It has not been until recent years that the Code Talkers were able to be acknowledged for the role they led in the fights for freedom.  In 1986 the first Choctaw Code Talkers were awarded medals by Chief Hollis E. Roberts. 

More recently, the US Congress on April 30, 2004 passed a bill to recognize and award 8 members of the Meskwaki Tribe of Tama County, Iowa for their service in WWII.  The following was found within the Meskwaki Code Talkers Recognition Act:

1) During World War II, 8 members of the Meskwaki tribe of Tama County, Iowa, used their native language as a code to transmit vital information to the United States Armed Forces regarding enemy actions, locations, troops, and ammunition.

2) These Meskwaki tribe members, known as the Meskwaki Code Talkers, worked under challenging conditions in North Africa, taking extreme risks to provide critical information to the United States Armed Forces.

3) Frank Sanache, the only surviving Meskwaki Code Talker, endured severe hardships both while he was stationed in North Africa and while he was held prisoner in a Polish internment camp after being captured by the Germans.

4) The enemy was never able to translate the native Meskwaki language, and the Meskwaki Code Talkers, among other Code Talkers, are credited with the lives of countless members of the United States Armed Forces and contributing significantly to the victory of the United States and its allies.

(www.theorator.com p.2)

The medals were awarded to members of the Code Talkers’ families during a ceremony in Tama, Iowa on January 14, 2005 by Senator Tom Harkin.  The Medals awarded were: the Distinguished Unit Award, Bronze Star Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Citation, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European – African – Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four Bronze Campaign Stars, World War II Victory Medal, Combat Infantry Badge First Award, World War II Honorable Service Lapel Button, Purple Heart, Distinguished Unit Citation Ribbon, American Defense Service Medal with one Silver Star, and a POW Medal.





While officially disbanded after WWII, the Code Talkers remained a secret until declassified in the 1970’s.  While mostly overlooked until late in the twentieth century, the Code Talkers still continue to be a great source of pride among Native peoples.  They have become a unifying force within Native tribes. 

In recent years efforts have continued to honor and acknowledge the sacrifices made by this band of brave men.  Beyond the medals and awards, more and more people are chronicling their lives.  Within the Navajo Nation, efforts are being made to keep their memories and achievements alive through photojournalism.  While wide spread knowledge is slowly progressing, it is progressing. 


Implications For Media Ecology


The mission of the Code Talkers was so secret that it wasn’t until 1968 that the World knew of their existence.  One of the closest kept secrets of the world wars, the Code Talkers changed the way conventional transmissions were encoded.    This is summed up thusly, “Secure and rapid communications are essential to effective operation on the battlefield, and military forces are working constantly to develop communications systems, methods, and techniques which will ensure that an enemy does not gain access to friendly intentions” (www.defenselink.mil p. 1).  The Code Talkers eliminated the time consuming and difficult task of cryptography by doing what they knew best – speak their own language. 

The accomplishments of the Code Talkers ensured not only the Allies victory, but also brought the importance of Native languages to the forefront.  In recent years, there has been an increase in the teaching of Native languages.  Because of the accomplishments of the Code Talkers, once dying languages now have a chance to survive. 

Today forming a Code Talking unit would be increasingly difficult.  Most Native speakers are elderly, but interest in these Native languages is on the rise.  Charles Trimble teaches Lakota (one of the three Sioux dialects) and says, “I think it is important.  I think it is beautiful and I think it helps a person and, certainly, it keeps the tribe alive, as a tribe” (Flakus 2).  This feeling of tribal unity, he believes, is enhanced by the legacy of the Code Talkers.  It has created a sense of cultural pride and reunified the people. 

The last of the Lakota Code Talkers was quoted as saying, “When I see people laughing and having a good time I realize why we were over there.  We done it for the people and if they are happy, then I am the happiest person alive” (Flakus 2). 




108th CONGRESS 2nd Session.  H. R. 4254.www.theorator.com/bills108/hr4254.html


Davis, Mary B.  Navajo Code Talkers.  Native America: In the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia.  Garland Publishing, Inc.  1996.

An Indian Technique.  www.defenselink.mil/specials/nativeamerican01/code.html

Flakus, Greg.  Last of Lakota Sioux Code Talkers Recalls WWII Service.  www.voanews.com/english/archive/2007-09/2007-09-27-voa58.cfm?CFID=58345...

Gease, Heidi Bell.  Oglala code talker last link to history. http://mytwobeadsworth.com/LakotaCodeTalkers.html

Hitt, Jack.  Navajo Code Talkers-America’s Biggest WWII Crypto-Secret.  www.rense.com/politics5/code.html

Kawano, Kenji.  Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers.  Northland Publishing Company. 1991.

McMillan, Ruth Frazier.  Choctaw Code Talkers.  www.acaciart.com/stories/archive15.html

Miller, Jessica.  Meskwaki veterans will receive medals posthumously.  WFCCourier.com.  www.wfccourier.com/articles/2005/01/14/news/regional/5df08f587fc6494f86256f8...

Navajo Code Talker’s Dictionary (revised as of 15 June 1945).  www.history.navy.mil/faqs61-4.htm

World War I and II Choctaw Code Talkers.www.oklachahta.org/code%20talkers.html




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