During World War II, the Germans used the Enigma cipher machine to send coded messages. The Japanese used the Angōki B-gata or Type B cipher machine. the Allies, meanwhile, used code talkers. Where the German and Japanese ciphers were broken even as the Americans joined the fight, the Axis nations never broke code talkers’ messages.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan honored these mostly Native Americans by declaring August 14 National Code Talkers Day. In his proclamation, Reagan said, “Since the Revolutionary War, when General George Washington praised the Indians under his command, the United States has been privileged to have members of the Indian Nation serve in its armed forces.
“From the bravery demonstrated at Valley Forge to the present day, Native Americans have heeded the call to duty. Beyond this unique role, American Indians serving in the United States military forces have established an outstanding record of bravery and heroism in battle. Many have given their lives in the performance of their duty. Their record should be recognized by all Americans.”
When we New Mexicans think of code talkers, we most often think of Navajo Marines serving in the Pacific. However, Navajo were not the only code talkers nor was World War II the first time they were used.
Cherokee code talkers of the 30th Infantry Division served alongside the British during the Second Battle of the Somme during World War I. Choctaw men in the 36th Infantry Division used their language to communicate within the American Expeditionary Forces during key battles in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France.
Hitler knew about the World War I code talkers’ success and sent linguists posing as tourists and scholars to the U.S. to learn Native American languages before the outbreak of World War II. Mastering the gender of German nouns, each of which requires a der, die, or das article, proved far easier for linguists than learning complex Native American languages and their various dialects.
So it is probably no surprise, the Allies employed Comanche code talkers during the invasion of Normandy and in the signal company of the 4th Infantry Division as it moved across Europe. Twenty-seven Meskwaki men, members of the Sac and Fox tribes, used their language against the Germans in the conquest of North Africa.
It seems a shame these people were overshadowed by the Navajo, the code talkers featured in many books and films. Perhaps the reason is the number of Navajo who fought in the Pacific or perhaps the ferocity of island-hopping battles and the unyielding resolve of the Japanese to relinquish territory. Whatever the reason, the Navajo stand out among Native Americans who communicated critical battle information during the war.
The last remaining of the original 29 Navajo code talkers was Chester Nez, who died June 4, 2014. Nez was born in Chichitah, New Mexico, to the Dibéłizhiní (Black Sheep Clan) of the Tsénahabiłnii (Sleeping Rock People). He was raised during a time of difficult relations between the government and his people. His mother died when he was only three years old. In his biography, written with Judith Schiess Avila of Albuquerque, Nez recalled children often being taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools. He was not allowed to speak his native language. At eight years old, Nez was given his English name, Chester, after President Chester A. Arthur. When he had had enough of government-run boarding schools, Nez left the one he was attending in Tuba City, Arizona. He joined the Marine Corps at age 21. That was in 1942.
While training as a member of the 382nd Infantry Regiment at Camp Pendleton, California, Nez was selected with 28 other men to be code talkers. He, John Benally, and John Manuelito, were the principals who developed the code. They assigned a Navajo word for each letter of the alphabet. “A,” for example, was wol-la-chee, red ant. “C” was moasi or cat. The most difficult letters were “J” and “Z.” In his biography, Nez says, “We finally settled on ‘jackass,’ the code word tkele-cho-gi, and ‘zinc,’ the code word besh-do-tliz. Among the 211 Navajo words comprising the code, a hand grenade was called nimasi, for potato, and a fighter plane was da-he-tih-hi, for hummingbird.
Nez was among the code talkers who landed on Guadalcanal, teamed with another Navajo. One man sent and received signals, while the other operated the radio and listened for errors. His service as a Marine sounds like the march of the Allies across the Pacific: Bougainville, Guam, Anagaur, and Peleliu.
Just before the Allied landing on Iwo Jima, where on Mount Suribachi Americans raised the flag in what is perhaps the most famous moment of the war — but not until after nearly 7,000 died and almost 18,000 were wounded — Nez was notified he had earned “his points” and was shipped back to San Francisco. While his buddies were fighting for their lives, Nez read about it over breakfast in the Naval hospital.
Nez said he couldn’t stop thinking about all he had done that went against his Navajo belief — pushing dead bodies out of the way, unmindful of their chindi or ghosts, “like I was doing some household task.” He writes of soldiers hospitalized for severe combat fatigue, not knowing where his fellow code talkers were. Other facilities, he writes, “might have housed some of my friends. I wasn’t sure. But in my hospital, the silence was filled with the faces of the enemy.”
It wasn’t until 1968 the secrecy of the code talkers’ role in the war was lifted and the world found out about them. In December 1971, President Richard Nixon awarded them a certificate of appreciation.
Thirty years later, Chester Nez was awarded the Congressional gold medal for his service by President George W. Bush and, in November 2013, the American Veterans Center honored him with the Audie Murphy Award for distinguished service for bravery and valor above and beyond the callof duty.
In all, 421 Navajo completed training as code talkers and most were assigned to combat units overseas. Seven died in combat. Following the war, surviving code talkers returned home for family reunions, traditional dances, and purification and curing sings — along with thankful prayers of mothers for the safe return of their sons.