Communication of sensitive information during war is often a complex endeavour. While the efficient relaying of intelligence can, under certain circumstances, make or break the outcome of a given battle, such messages can and do fall into the wrong hands.
This often results in their contents being used by their interceptors. By this they gain a tactical advantage over whomever sent them in the first place. So how did the American Indian fit into all of this?
Of course, there are ways around this, with different forms of encryption being commonplace. Arguably one of the most effective was the use of so-called Native American ‘code talkers’, also known as ‘wind talkers,’ by the US Army during the First and Second World Wars.
But who were these code talkers, and what was it that made them so special?
- Background: the Status of Indigenous American Cultures Prior to the Second World War
- The History of Native Americans in the Military
- The Role of ‘Wind’ or ‘Code Talkers’ During World Wars One and Two
- The Navajo Code Talkers
- Code Talkers During WW2 – Type One and Type Two Code
- Risks Faced by Code Talkers on the Battlefield
- Other Notable Examples of Code Talkers
Background: The Status of Indigenous American Cultures Prior to the Second World War
Prior to the First and Second World Wars, there was a substantial, ongoing effort conducted by the US government to erase the myriad indigenous cultures and tribes that could be found across the country.
One major example of this is the so-called ‘American Indian boarding schools,’.
These were first established during the earlier stages of colonisation in the country. In some instances, they operated until the first half of the 20th century.
The primary aim of these schools was to remove Native American Indian children from their indigenous cultures and language. It was to make them assimilate into European and North American society.
This involved a number of tactics, including forcibly cutting students’ hair. They would also punish them for speaking in their native languages. They would also force them to use assigned, European names, rather than their American Indian birth names.
This process, combined with a range of other efforts with similar aims, continued right up until the First World War. I
t is a fact that is noteworthy when we consider how, simultaneously, several Native American Indian languages were being weaponised to great effect during the conflict by the US Armed Forces in the form of code talkers.
The History of Native Americans in the Military
The history of the presence of Native Americans in various US military conflicts and efforts has been a complex one. During the American War of Independence, for instance, various indigenous tribes fought on both sides of the conflict.
Many even sided with the British due to their having extant trade relations with the United Kingdom.
Conversely, other native groups fought on the side of the colonists as a result of living in close proximity to colonial towns or settlements. All in all, an estimated 3,500 indigenous soldiers served in the conflict.
Historical sources have established that, during the War of Independence, any involvement on the part of Native Americans was generally motivated by a desire to prevent further colonisation of their land.
Given the history of oppression and atrocities committed by the US government against Native American Indians, some have questioned the motives of indigenous soldiers who have served in the US Army in any capacity.
Historians have pointed out that the opportunity to do so would likely be motivated by the warrior archetype present in folklore, which some Native American would likely have sought to emulate.
The Role of ‘Wind’ or ‘Code Talkers’ During World Wars One and Two
As mentioned above, being able to safely transmit sensitive information and intelligence during wartime has proven challenging throughout history. Coming up with ways to do so has also been a matter of utmost priority for many nations.
In the case of the US Army, one solution came in the form of Native Indian code talkers.
Soldiers throughout the First and Second World Wars used their native languages, most of which had a very small number of native speakers, to transmit crucial information on the battlefield.
The first known instance of code talkers being used by the US Army was during the Second Battle of the Somme during WWI. A number of Cherokee soldiers from the 30th Infantry Division transmitted messages to one another while under fire.
The advantage of doing so was simple. Native speakers of Cherokee were few and far between and likely lived exclusively in the US. This meant that, should their transmissions be intercepted, there was virtually zero chance of them being successfully interpreted or decoded by enemy forces.
Generally speaking, code talkers would work in pairs and use a portable radio for their transmissions. One half of the pair would be in charge of operating the radio, while the other would transcribe the messages. Once received they would be translated into English.
During the First World War, the code talkers recruited were fluent speakers of the Choctaw and Cherokee languages. By the Second World War, the Army would go on to incorporate code talkers fluent in several languages. These included Fox, Comanche, Assiniboine, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Muscogee, Navajo, and Tlengit.
Code Talkers During WW2 – Type One and Type Two Code
While code talkers played a crucial role in the success of the Allies during World War Two, they were actually not used as widely in the European Theatre.
This was due in large part to intelligence gathered by the Nazis on US code-talking operations, particularly during the First World War. In fact, a group of Nazi anthropologists even travelled to the US prior to the outbreak of the Second World War to study various Native American languages.
Allegedly, the prominent Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels proclaimed Indigenous Americans to be Aryans. This research trip was motivated by the Nazis’ academic interest in Native American Indian cultures and societies.
Nevertheless, the US Army was concerned that, due to their interest in the subject, the Nazis potentially had sufficient intelligence to mitigate the effectiveness of code talkers. For this reason they were used somewhat sparingly in Europe in particular.
The Navajo Code Talkers
It was the Navajo language that was chiefly utilised by code talkers throughout the Second World War. There were two forms of encryption developed by native army recruits for military use.
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These were known as type one and type two code. Type one code was devised and subsequently memorised in 1942 by a small number of Navajo-speaking recruits. Reportedly, they were kept inside a guarded room until they had completed this task.
In short, type one code involved using Navajo words to substitute letters of the English alphabet. In the same way that, say, ‘foxtrot’ stands for ‘f’ in the NATO phonetic alphabet.
Type two code was more complex and consisted of a wide range of military words that lacked a direct translation in Navajo. For instance, because there was no Navajo word for ‘submarine,’ the code talkers used a phrase that literally translated to ‘iron fish’ in Navajo.
Because Navajo has an incredibly complex system of grammar, few other languages are mutually intelligible with it. This, combined with the fact that there were estimated to be no more than 30 non-Navajo who could actually understand the language at the time of the Second World War.
This made it an ideal choice for encrypting and transmitting intelligence.
The Navajo code talkers also became renowned for their efficiency and accuracy on the battlefield; reportedly, six code talkers worked for two days straight when the Battle of Iwo Jima first began. They transmitted a total of 800 messages in this time without a single error.
Risks Faced by Code Talkers on the Battlefield
While code talkers weren’t directly involved in combat as such, their role was a perilous one. Japanese soldiers in particular were known for targeting radiomen on the battlefield. Code talkers stationed in the Pacific had to constantly be on the move and conceal their location whenever possible.
And, occasionally, Navajo code talkers were mistaken for Japanese soldiers by other Americans who were serving in the Pacific. Some instances of this rather ironically led to the code talkers being captured by their comrades.
This resulted in the Navajo operators being assigned bodyguards to keep them safe on the battlefield. Reportedly, these bodyguards were also tasked with killing the code talkers they were duty-bound to protect if there was a risk of them being captured by the enemy.
Other Notable Examples of Code Talkers
While the term ‘code talker’ is most strongly associated with the Navajo soldiers who served in the US Army during the Second World War, the tactic has been used in military operations across the globe.
For example, transmissions in Welsh have been used by the British Army on a number of occasions to this end. Some examples being during the Second World War and Yugoslav Wars. However, this has not been done for messages of vital importance.
The Canadian Government also recruited a number of code talkers fluent in the Cree language during the Second World War. Due to classification and oaths of secrecy sworn by the soldiers in question, their efforts remained a secret for decades after the resolution of the conflict.
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More recently, the Ukrainian Army has used Hungarian code talkers fairly extensively as part of its ongoing war with Russia. Ukraine has a sizeable Hungarian-speaking minority in Zakarpattia Oblast, which is on the Ukrainian side of its border with Hungary.
While the country has no shortage of Hungarian speakers, the language is, unlike Ukrainian, not mutually intelligible to speakers of the Russian language, making it an obvious choice for use in a code-talking context to encrypt and transmit vital information.