WASHINGTON – Native American “code talkers” who transmitted codes based on 33 tribal dialects during World Wars I and II so enemies could not decipher them were patriots with “unique capabilities and willingness to give their talents and lives” to the nation, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday at a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony to honor them.
Navy Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., joined in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall by House and Senate leaders and other officials, recognized 216 code talkers and members of their Families from those wars with the highest honor Congress can bestow.
Winnefeld said, “During Native American Heritage Month, I have the great privilege of representing the finest military in the world in recognizing hundreds of Native Americans who wore the cloth of our nation in the distinctive way we celebrate today, and in such a courageous way, defending a country that did not always keep its word to their ancestors.”
Conceived in 1918, the code talker program eventually comprised more than 400 Native Americans who volunteered to defend the nation, the vice chairman said.
The role of the code talkers during the two world wars was kept a secret until 1968, officials said.
“Throughout history, military leaders have sought the perfect code — signals the enemy cannot break, no matter how able the intelligence team,” the vice chairman said. “It was our code talkers who created voice codes that defied decoding.”
Winnefeld said the codes were “doubly clever” by using words that were confusing to the enemy, such as “crazy white man” for Adolf Hitler and “tortoise” for tank.
“Our code talkers’ role in combat required intelligence, adaptability, grace under pressure, and bravery — key attributes handed down by their ancestors,” the admiral said.
Winnefeld said the code talkers endured some of the nation’s most dangerous battles and served proudly during critical combat operations, such as the Choctaws at the Meuse-Argonne, Comanches on Utah Beach on D-Day, Hopis in the Caroline Islands and the Cherokees at the Second Battle of the Somme.
“These men were integral members of their teams — the 36th Infantry Division, the 4th Signals Company, the 81st Infantry Division, the 30th Infantry Division — learning Morse code and operating equipment to transmit messages quickly and accurately,” he added.
Contributing even more than battle skills, the code talkers also “fundamentally contributed to our military intelligence community’s work” in cryptology, Winnefeld said.
The National Security Agency Museum highlights the code talkers of World War I and World War II as pioneers of this specialty, he added.
The code talkers are a national resource, a wellspring of intelligence, innovation, hard work and resilience, the vice chairman said.
“We can best honor these great warriors among us not just with well-deserved and long overdue recognition,” the vice chairman said, “but also with our own efforts to continue leveraging our nation’s diversity and to forever honor our veterans.”