Turtles, Pregnant Airplanes, and Iron Fish: Remembering the Native American Code Talkers

Chester Nez, the last of the original WWII Navajo code talkers, just passed away.

Here’s an interview with him, from 2013:

Code talkers, for those not familiar with them, are speakers of rare or obscure languages who are used to transmit sensitive information over possibly unsecured communication lines. The combination of an obscure language and a (usually simple) code are enough to keep the messages secure. The most famous code talkers are the Navajo code talkers of WWII, but there have been code talkers in other Native American languages, as well as in Basque and Welsh.

I got curious about code talkers about a month ago, thanks to Eagle-Eyed Editor’s post on Mr. Nez’s memoir (co-authored by Judith Avila), Code Talker. As I poked around the internet after reading EEE’s post, I found the interview above, and (somewhere) a casual mention of code talking using other Native American languages. I made a note to myself to look that up, someday.

And that day was the day before yesterday, the day before Mr. Nez passed away. One of life’s odd juxtapositions….

NewImageChoctaw Code Talkers, WWI
Image: Wikipedia

The first largeish-scale use of Native American code talkers by the U.S. military was in World War I: Choctaw servicemen from the 141st, 142nd, and 143rd Infantry Regiments who were recruited into a “telephone squad” during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, in 1918. (Cherokee code talkers were used by the American 30th Infantry Division in the Second Battle of the Somme, also in 1918. The Cherokee code talkers pre-dated the Choctaw code talkers by about a month, but their unit was under British command at the time.) The Germans had tapped the American telephone lines and broken their codes, disrupting communications. Runners sent to deliver messages directly were routinely captured.

Then a captain in the 142nd Regiment, by chance, heard two Choctaw soldiers, Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb, conversing in their native language. He asked them what language they were speaking, and if there were other speakers among the troops. On learning that two Choctaw soldiers were stationed at the company headquarters, the captain organized an experiment in which Louis and Bobb delivered a message in Choctaw by telephone to the Choctaw soldiers stationed at Headquarters, who in turn translated the message back to English and relayed it to the Battalion Commander. Based on the success of the experiment, eight Choctaw speakers were reassigned to strategic positions and began relaying coded communications. The Germans were unable to decode the messages, allowing the US troops to win several key battles and drive the Germans into retreat.

Altogether, at least nineteen Choctaws were subsequently recruited to the program. Because the Choctaw language doesn’t have equivalents of modern military terms, they had to improvise a simple code (about twenty terms, compared with over 600 terms in the subsequent Navaho code of WWII) to communicate about the battlefield. My favorite is “little gun shoot fast” for “machine gun”. The efforts and accomplishments of the Choctaw code talkers, though highly praised by their commanders, went unrecognized after the war when the soldiers returned home.

But Adolf Hitler heard about it. Prior to WWII, the Nazis sent anthropologists to the U.S. to learn Native American languages. Of course, there are a lot of such languages, not all of them related, but while the German anthropologists were not entirely successful, their efforts led the U.S. military to avoid large-scale use of Native American code-talkers in Europe, using them instead mostly in the Pacific theater (Seventeen Comanche code talkers were deployed in the European theater, as part of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division).

NewImageNavajo Code Talkers Preston and Frank Toledo, 1943.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps History Division

The use of Navajos as code talkers in World War II was proposed by Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran who grew up on a Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary and was one of only about 28 fluent non-Navajo speakers of their language. Johnston argued that Navajo was an ideal language because: most Navajos were fluent in it, and few non-Navajos were; the language was not closely related to other Native American languages, so members of other tribes were not likely to be able to decipher it; and the Navajo tribe was the only tribe that had not been visited by German anthropologists. A trial demonstration in San Diego in 1942 convinced the Marines to implement the program.

As one of the original code talkers, Chester Nez helped develop the code used by his fellow Navajos.

This major took us into a great big room and he said, ‘you guys are going to have to make up a code in your own native language,’ that’s all he said. He left, closed the door behind him and locked the door. We didn’t know what to think, you know? What does he mean by making a code in our own language? We sat there for about three or four minutes thinking, how are we going to develop this code?—Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004

The code was based on the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet (Able-Baker-Charlie…), only with objects that would be easy for them to memorize, as part of their everyday lives.

So we start talking about different things, animals, sea creatures, birds, eagles, hawks, and all those domestic animals. Why don’t we use those names of different animals—from A to Z. So A, we took a red ant that we live with all the time. B we took a bear, Yogi the Bear, C a Cat, D a Dog, E an Elk, F, Fox, G, a goat and so on down the line.—Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004

Like the Choctaw before them, they also developed coded terms for common military equipment and concepts: “buzzard” for bomber, “iron fish” for submarine, “tortoise” for tank (“pregnant airplane” and “turtle” were the Comanche code words for bomber and tank, respectively).

Neither the Germans nor the Japanese ever broke a Native American code, in either World War.

Even as the code talkers helped the U.S. to victory in both World Wars, Native American children, forced to attend state-run boarding schools, were forbidden from speaking their native language in school.

They tell us not to speak in Navajo language. You’re going to school. You’re supposed to only speak English. And it was true. They did practice that and we got punished if you was caught speaking Navajo.—John Brown, Jr., Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004

“You had this crazy situation where the Choctaw language was being used as a formidable weapon of war, yet back home children were being beaten at school for using it,” says Judy Allen, senior executive officer of tribal relations with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “The two soldiers who were overheard by the officer probably thought they were in trouble rather than about to provide the answer to the army’s communication problems.” — Denise Winterman, “World War One: The original code talkers“, BBC News Magazine

Ironic, no?

One last story of bravery and survival, not about a code talker, but someone who deserves to be remembered: Sgt. Joe Kieyoomia (1919-1997) was a Navajo who served in the Pacific Theater during World War, as an ordinary soldier. He was captured in the Philippines, and forced to undergo the infamous Bataan Death March. He survived and was imprisoned in Nagasaki, where he was tortured because — based on his last name, and presumably the Japanese unfamiliarity with Americans who were neither black nor white — his captors assumed that he was Japanese-American.

They eventually believed his claim to Navajo ancestry, but then insisted that he decipher the intercepted messages from Navajo code talkers. Of course, he couldn’t — to him the messages were only so much nonsense — and he was tortured more. He survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at the end of the war, thanks to his concrete cell, and was abandoned for three days in the resulting chaos, until a Japanese officer finally freed him. All told, he spent 43 months in Japanese prison camps.

He survived the Bataan Death March and an atomic bomb. Many, many terrible things happened during World War II, and those two events are pretty high on the list.

“I salute the Code Talkers,” [Kieyoomia] says as he displays his 12 service medals, framing a handsome portrait of his Army youth. “And even if I knew about their code, I wouldn’t tell the Japanese.”

We salute you, Sergeant Kieyoomia, and you, too, Corporal Nez. May you both rest in peace.

References and interesting links:

The quotes from the National Museum of the American Indian interviews are taken from the online exhibit Native Words, Native Warriors, by the National Museum of the American Indian.

Photocopy of declassified correspondence and memos documenting the initial stages of the Navajo Code Talkers Program, 1942. Includes a transcript of the messages transmitted and then received during the first demonstration (pp 10-11). Interesting stuff.

Navajo Code Talkers Dictionary from the Naval History & Heritage Command

2012 Documentary about Chester Nez (about 22 minutes long), part of the Navajo Oral History Project

How Effective Was Navajo Code? One Former Captive Knows. Short article about Joe Kieyoomia, originally published in News from Indian Country, August 1997.

Code Talkers at the Native American Project. Scroll all the way down to the bottom to read the Marine Hymn translated into Navajo.

Code Talker at Wikipedia

Code Talkers to Better Walkers at Government Book Talk. Yes, there is a blog dedicated to promoting “new and popular publications” of the U.S. Government Printing Office. Really.

World War I’s Native American Code Talkers at history.com.

Comanche Code Talkers at the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center website.

7 thoughts on “Turtles, Pregnant Airplanes, and Iron Fish: Remembering the Native American Code Talkers

  1. This is a wonderful post and very timely for my countrymen and women (Canada) as a past Prime Minister, Paul Martin, openly condemns our current P.M. (Stephen Harper) for his government’s treatment of our First Nations. I had never heard of the code talkers and now I want to learn more.

    1. I’m glad you liked it! The story of the code talkers is fascinating. I haven’t read Mr. Nez’s memoirs yet, but it seems like a good place to start.

      Also, regarding First Nations (and Canada) issues, you might try browsing Wayne K. Spear’s blog: http://waynekspear.com — he’s based in Toronto, blogs about all kinds of random stuff, and you might find some of it interesting.

  2. I’m glad you liked what I said about the code talkers and I enjoyed reading your post of the code talkers; you took it a few steps further. Really fascinating bit of American history. Chester Nez and the others were so brave to do what they did.

      1. The Navajo nation is flying flags at half-staff in honor of Chester Nez. I hope the Marine Corps does something this weekend as well, even if it’s just flying the flag at half-staff at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. It would be a great gesture.

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