Before radio communications could be encrypted through technological means, the U.S. military struggled to find fast and effective means to send secure messages. Perhaps the best method they found was to employ Native American troops as Code Talkers — radio operators who communicated to each other using their native languages. Native American languages were rarely written and almost entirely unknown to enemy nations on other continents. This meant even their casual onversations could not be understood or translated by the enemy, much less their messages being decoded.
Code Talkers from 14 different Native American nations served in World War I and World War II, including over 400 Navajo Marines during World War II. After the war, the Japanese chief of intelligence acknowledged they never broke the Navajo code. The original 29 Najavo Marine Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001. The Veterans History Project maintains oral history interviews from more than 20 Navajo Code Talkers.
In their interviews, the troops speak of the lifelong adversity they had faced. Growing up in an era of forced assimilation, most attended boarding schools that forbade them from speaking in Navajo. The irony of later being asked to use this language at war was not lost on them.
“Now my mind went back to the past — first they told me not to speak Navajo, but now they want me to speak Navajo in combat,” recalled Teddy Draper, who served with the Marines on Iwo Jima.
In addition to being a fascinating chapter of military history, the Code Talkers’ unique experiences have much to teach us about the human dimensions of war. They faced almost continuous combat. Due to high demand for their services, the Code Talkers frequently were sent directly from one battlefield to another instead of rotating to the rear with their units. Many are open and honest about the stress combat placed on them and how that affected them after the war.
Upon coming home, some participated in traditional Navajo ceremonies that provided healing and reintegration and often speak highly of these ceremonies’ effectiveness. All of them offer valuable insights into the importance for veterans of finding community and purpose after their service ends.
These accounts of their life experiences can be accessed through the online research guide, “Navajo Code Talkers: A Guide to First-Person Narratives in the Veterans History Project.”
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