Code Talking: Intelligence and Bravery

Intelligence and Bravery

The Code Talkers’ role in war required intelligence and bravery. They developed and memorized a special code. They endured some of the most dangerous battles and remained calm under fire. They served proudly, with honor and distinction. Their actions proved critical in several important campaigns, and they are credited with saving thousands of American and allies’ lives.

American Indian Warrior Tradition

The American Indian warrior tradition of protecting their people led many of them to serve in the U.S. military. They served out of a sense of patriotism. For some American Indians, the military offered economic security and an opportunity for education, training, and world travel.

During World War II, an estimated 44,000 Indian men and women served, over 12% of the Indian population.

Recruitment and Training

The Marine Corps recruited Navajo Code Talkers in 1941 and 1942. Philip Johnston, although not Indian, had grown up on a Navajo reservation. In 1942, he suggested to the Marine Corps that Navajos and other tribes could be helpful in maintaining communications secrecy. After viewing a demonstration of messages sent in the Navajo language, the Marine Corps was so impressed that they recruited 29 Navajos in two weeks to develop a code using their language.

After the Navajo code was developed, the Marine Corps established a Code Talking school. As the war progressed, more than 400 Navajos were recruited as Code Talkers. Following basic training, the Code Talkers completed extensive training in communications and memorizing the code.

Some Code Talkers enlisted, others were drafted. There were Code Talkers from at least 16 tribes who served in the military.

Constructing the Code

Many American Indian Code Talkers in World War II used their everyday tribal languages to convey messages. A message such as, “Send more ammunition to the front,” would just be translated into the Native language and sent over the radio.

Creating Special Code Words

The Navajos, Comanches, Hopis, and others also had to develop special words for World War II military terms, such as types of planes, ships, or weapons. They were given picture charts that showed them the items. After looking at the pictures, they came up with words that seemed to fit the pictures.

Sending Messages in Code

Code Talkers did more than speak into a hand-held radio or phone. They had to operate both wire and radio equipment, and often had to carry it on their backs. They had to know how to set up and maintain the electronic communication lines. Sometimes their messages were broadcast over a wide area, helping to direct bigger operations. At other times, messages related to a smaller group, such as a platoon.

Code Talkers were given the messages in English. Without writing them down, they translated and sent them to another Code Talker. After the message was received, it was written down in English and entered into a message logbook. The Code Talkers also sent messages in English. Messages were only coded when absolute secrecy was needed.

Source: Code Talking: Intelligence and Bravery
Copyright, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian, 2007.

Back to top