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By 2nd Lt. Robert Dornfried
Headquarters Company, 572nd Engineer Battalion
National Navajo Code Talkers Day is Aug. 14, 2021. As the observance approaches, we should take a moment to recognize the sacrifices and contributions of the nearly 25,000 Native Americans who served in the Armed Forces during WWII. In the words of Signal Officer Maj. Howard Connor, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
Despite the checkered past of the United States Government’s treatment, Native Americans have served nobly in the military as loyal allies and volunteers. From the French-Indian War and Revolutionary War of the 18th century, through the Civil War and into the 20th century, Native Americans served on the front lines side by side with their fellow comrades. As a footnote of their sense of duty, proportional to overall population, Native Americans enlisted at the highest rate of any demographic group during World War II and proved instrumental in the Pacific Theater.
The tradition of the Navajo Code Talkers was born during World War I as over two dozen Native American tribes were consolidated in military service and utilized as top-secret code talkers. German intelligence had successfully cracked all previous U.S. English-speaking codes, but this creative solution proved indecipherable.
World War II presented another opportunity for Native Americans to serve, and paved the way for further democratic reforms and integration throughout the remainder of the 20th century. Just as African-Americans, women, and Asian-Americans fought bravely throughout World War II, the highly classified service of Native American code talkers in both theaters of operations enabled the United States to emerge victorious by maintaining real-time communication indecipherable to the enemy, especially in the Pacific Theater. Had the Navajo been captured, many were prepared to commit suicide rather than divulge information to the Japanese who would surely attempt to extract it at any cost.
Of the Native American tribes, the Navajo filled the bulk of the Signal Corps’ and Intelligence ranks, yet several other Native American tribes from the across the United States, including the Cherokee, Kiowa, Winnebago, Creek, Chippewa, Seminole, Hope, Lakota, Dakota, Menominee, Oneida, Pawnee, Sac, Fox, and Choctaw served with distinction. Originally recruited and trained exclusively by the Army, the Marine Corps and Navy quickly followed suit, and by 1942 Navajo Code Talkers were deployed heavily in the Pacific Theater against Imperial Japan. Code Talkers quickly became a target for enemy snipers, who often sought out officers, medics, and code talkers. They served in every corner of the globe during the conflict. From the desert of North Africa with the 34th Infantry Division, to the D-Day landings in 1944, Code Talkers were there.
On the battlefield, Code Talkers were highly trained and efficient transmitters, having developed their own alphabet and a Navajo-English dictionary for military translation at higher echelons. The uniform alphabet and terminology utilized by the Navajo, for example “besh-lo” meant “submarine”, enabled them to quickly translate, with precision accuracy, messages to and from command posts.
As the war came to a close, the United States government recognized the enormous contributions of the Navajo Code Talkers, and chose to classify the endeavor should the program need to be revived for a future conflict during the looming Cold War. It wasn’t until 1968 that the code talker program was declassified, and not until 2001 that Congressional Gold Medals were issued to living and deceased members. Finally on June 18, 2002, the U.S. Congress enacted the Code Talkers Recognition Act, and in 2013 the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony awarded over 33 tribes the nation’s highest civilian honor. In the words of World War Two Native-American veteran Carl Gorman, “We never thought we were special; we were just Marines doing our job.”