In honor of Native American Heritage Month, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence History Office hosted a presentation on the Native American Code Talkers of World Wars I and II, Nov. 14, in Fitch Auditorium,Alvarado Hall.
The guest speaker was Dr. William Meadows, author of “The Comanche Code Talkers of WWII.” Meadows is a member of the Missouri State Native American Studies committee, a member of the Native American Heritage Month committee, the coordinator for the Missouri State University Native American Heritage Month Pow Wow, and the faculty sponsor of the American Indian Student Association. In 2004, he testified before Congress, speaking on behalf of all of the Native American code talkers. His intense research assisted in the passage of the 2008 Code Talkers Recognition Act, giving recognition to all past Native American Code Talkers.
The Native American Code Talkers began with 13 young, Comanche male soldiers who devised an extremely secure code, created from their native language. They used this code to communicate on the battlefields during the wars, with the advantage of speed and security. Their code is said to be the most ingenious and successful, being the only code in military history that is unbroken. In World War I, the Germans inquired what the language was, but could not decipher it. In World War II, the Japanese recognized the use of the Navajo language, but could not capture a code talker to break it. Regardless, the code talkers were dedicated to their language and even torture would not break them. It was only the training officer who kept a written record of the code and the rest of the code talkers committed it to memory. The written record was lost during the North African Campaign but the verbal code was kept classified until 1968, when it became public.
“They were silent heroes during their lives and they simply went to their graves with that secret,” said Gregory Pyle, chief of the Choctaw Nation, according to http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/08/08/code-talkers-have-served-the-military-well—and-often-secretly-45697.
There are two types of code talking. Type one used Native American languages that were unknown to the enemy and contained specially devised coded vocabulary for the military. Type two used Native American languages as well, but without the specially coded vocabulary. The purpose of code talking was to avoid exposure of the U.S. plans of movement during the war. The code talkers sent radio messages detailing the exact landing locations or changes of each group of allied forces.
The code was made up of native terms that were associated with military languages, and a phonetic alphabet using native terms. To simplify the memorization process, military words were used that reminded the code talkers of things that were associated. English words such as tortoise translated to “chay-da-gahi,” meaning “tank” in the native language. “Besh-lo” meant “iron fish” and was used for the English word “submarine.”
After the wars were over, the code talkers held ceremonies that cleansed their bodies and their spirits. They were told not to speak about it. According to Helena Holiday, daughter of Navajo code talker Sam Holiday, there are only approximately 20 Navajo code talkers who speak publicly about the experiences.
Meadows continuously researches the code talkers, interviewing those still alive and their family members, collecting information to keep the recognition alive and extend the knowledge. He has spoken at many openings of the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit on Native American Code Talkers “Native Words, Native Warriors.” For more information on the exhibit, visit http://nmai.si.edu/education/codetalkers/.