This is Chester Nez, the last of the original Navajo 29, being honoured at an April 4 ceremony. If it weren’t for him and the other 28 Native Americans who created the secret code language used in the Pacific theatre during World War II, America would have probably never won the war against Japan.
Their work was so important that it remained secret for decades and it’s only recently — in 1968 — that they have started to receive some of the recognition they deserve.
According to Major Howard Connor — 5th Marine Division signal officer during the battle of Iwo Jima — “were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
Connor had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error.
Before the development of this code, Japanese intelligence broke every single encryption created by the US military, something that costed thousands of lives and millions of dollars in material losses. The Navajo code, however, was never broken. Not by the Japanese, not by anyone. Nez — who fought at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu and Angaur — tells the story here:
We first 29 Code Talkers designed a doubly-encrypted secret language using Navajo and English. It became the only unbroken spoken code in modern warfare. Not even other Navajos could crack our code. Finally the Marines could plan strategic maneuvers without the enemy knowing every move.
The code was a complete success and soon was implemented across the entire Pacific theatre of operations:
The code was so successful that the Corps recruited 400 more Navajo men to join as Code Talkers. During the war, Nez and the other Code Talkers’ primary mission was to receive and send encrypted messages. Even if they were being shot at, their focus was on sending the message, not firing back at the enemy.
“That could be pretty stressful,” Nez said. “But we did it.”
The Nazis tried to thwart the plan
The Navajos weren’t the only Native Americans that were instrumental to win the war. The Comanches worked hard in Europe too, even after Adolf Hitler sent a team of anthropologists to try to learn Native American languages in preparation of their use in World War II. Hitler knew that, during World War I, the Americans and British forces successfully used Cherokee and Choctaw code talkers against the Germans.
Fortunately, Hitler’s minions never got the complexity of their language and — even while the Allies were nervous about the findings of the Nazi anthropology team — fourteen Comanche code talkers successfully worked their code magic during the Invasion of Normandy and until the end of the war.
Comanches of the 4th Signal Company compiled a vocabulary of over 100 code terms using words or phrases in their own language. Using a substitution method similar to the Navajo, the Comanche code word for tank was “turtle”, bomber was “pregnant aeroplane”, machine gun was “sewing machine” and Adolf Hitler became “crazy white man”.
In North of Africa, 27 Meskwaki did the same work against Germans and Italians. Amazingly enough, that’s 16 per cent of the population of the total Meskwaki population in Iowa.
That data point is quite surprising. The entire story of the code talkers is even more incredible considering that these tribes were systematically exterminated, removed from their land, and humiliated by the United States government and its military a mere decades before this all happened. They lived in reserves (and still do) and they suffered the same discrimination as African-Americans (and still do.)
To add insult to injury, the code talkers got no public recognition until 1968. In 1982, President Reagan gave the Navajos a “Certificate of Recognition.” It wasn’t until Clinton, in 2000, that a law was passed to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Navajo 29, while the rest of the code talkers got the silver medal. Four surviving members of the Navajo 29 got the medal from President George W. Bush in 2001. Nez is the last one.
It wasn’t until 2008 that all the tribes who participated in coding operations during the two big wars were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Each tribe got a gold medal — which the white men will keep safe at the Smithsonian Institution, because apparently the Native Americans can’t keep them safe for some reason I fail to comprehend — and each code talker got a silver medal duplicate.