Native American Code Talkers

Photos from National Museum of the American Indian

Photos from National Museum of the American Indian

Today is Wednesday, November 13, 2013.

I had heard of Navajo Code Talkers before, but then the other day I saw an article about a Lakota Code talker, so I decided to look up the subject, and learned a great deal, which I am going to summarize here.

Native American Code Talkers served in both world wars.  (I thought they were only used in World War II.  That just shows how little I know.)  The very first code talkers were a group of Cherokee troops in the American 30th Infantry Division, which served alongside the British in the Second Battle of the Somme in September 1918.  The unit was under British command.

Company commander Captain Lawrence of the U.S. Army overheard Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb speaking in the Choctaw language. He found eight Choctaw men in the battalion.Eventually, at least fifteen Choctaw men in the Army’s 36th Infantry Division were trained to use their language in code. They helped the American Expeditionary Forces win several key battles in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France. Within 24 hours after the Choctaw Code Talkers began operations, the tide of the battle had turned. In less than 72 hours the Germans were retreating and the Allies were in full attack.  During World War I, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, and Yankton Sioux Code Talkers were also used in various battles.

When the United States entered World War II, Native American Code Talkers were once again used.  Adolf Hitler knew about the Code Talkers from World War I and sent a team of 30 anthropologists to the United States before war broke out to try to learn some of these languages.  Unfortunately for the Nazis, the languages and their many dialects proved too difficult to learn quickly.  The United States knew about Hitler’s attempt to learn train his own code talkers, so they did not use many of them in the European theater.  At least seventeen Comanche Code Talkers took part in the Invasion of Normandy, and continued to serve in the 4th Infantry Division during European operations.  Two Comanche Code Talkers were assigned to each regiment, and the rest to the 4th Infantry Division headquarters. 

Comanches of the 4th Signal Company compiled a vocabulary of over 100 code terms using words or phrases in their own language.  Like the Navajo Code Talkers, they used a substitution method.  The Comanche code word for tank was “turtle”, bomber was “pregnant airplane”, machine gun was “sewing machine” and Adolf Hitler was called “crazy white man”.

There were Code Talkers from a number of other tribes during World War II (at least two of each, unless noted otherwise), including Assiniboine, CherokeeChippewa/Oneida (at least seventeen), Choctaw, Hopi (at least 11), Kowa, Menominee, Muskogee/Creek and Seminole, Pawnee, Sioux (both Lakota and Dakota dialects), and Sac and Fox/Meskwaki (at least 19, who served in North Africa).  The reason the Navajo Code Talkers, who served in the Marines, are so well-known is that there were at least 420 of them.

What made the Navajo language such a great code?   It has a complex grammar, it is a tone language (which is always hard for speakers of intonational languages such as English, French, German, Spanish, etc.), it is not mutually intelligible with even its closest relatives within the Na-Dene family of languages, and, most importantly, up to the time of World War II, it was an unwritten language.

The original group of 29 Navajo Code Talkers attended boot camp in May 1942.  Like the Comanches, the Navajo Code Talkers used everyday words, such as their word for “potato” to mean a hand grenade.  Some of their code words entered the Marine vocabulary in English, eventually: “Gofasters” are running shoes and “ink sticks” are ballpoint pens.  A codebook was developed, but never taken into the field, which meant that the Code Talkers had to memorize hundreds of code words and remember them correctly under stressful battle conditions.  The way they used the words, however, untrained native speakers could not understand the coded messages.  The Japanese captured a Navajo man, Army Sergeant Joe Kieyoomia, in the Philippines in 1942 during the Bataan Death March.  Even though he was a native speaker of Navajo, he was not a trained code talker, and was unable to understand the messages.  If Japanese cryptographers had worked carefully with him, they might have broken the code, but sadly, they chose to torture Kieyoomia, instead.

Native Americans were not the only Code Talkers used in World War II; they were simply the most numerous.  There were also Basque (people who live in the mountainous region between France and Spain) Code Talkers and Welsh Code Talkers.  Until their operations were declassified in 1968, their service in the war was unknown and unrecognized by the general public.  President Ronald Reagan gave Navajo Code Talkers a Certificate of Recognition in 1982.  In December, 2000, President Bill  Clinton signed a law which awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original twenty-nine World War II Navajo Code Talkers, and Silver Medals to each of the other Navajo Code Talkers.  In July 2001, President George W. Bush presented the medal to four of the surviving original Navajo Code Talkers in Washington, D.C.  Medals were presented to the families of deceased Code Talkers.

In 2007, Chactaw Code Talkers were posthumously awarded the Texas Medal of Valor, and in 2008, President George W. Bush signed a law that recognized every Native American Code Talker who served in the U.S. military in World War I or World War II (with the exception of those already given awards).  Each of these was given a Congressional Gold Medal with a design for his own tribe.  The gold medals are kept in the Smithsonian Institution.  A duplicate silver medal was given to each Code Talker to keep.

Clarence Wolf Guts   Photo by Bernie Hunhoff/South Dakota.Magazine

Clarence Wolf Guts Photo by Bernie Hunhoff/South Dakota.Magazine

The last Lakota Code Talker was Clerence Wolf Guts. He was born in the Red Leaf community on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota in 1924.  His birth certificate gave his name as Eagle Elk, but his father and uncles soon began to call him Wolf Guts.  He learned to speak Lakota from his grandfather, Hawk Ghost, and his grandmother, Hazel Medicine Owl.  They also attended an Indian boarding school.

Wolf Guts and his cousin, Iver Crow Eagle, left school to fight in World War II, heading for Omaha to take the physical exam.  Wolf Guts had a perforated eardrum as a result of a childhood incident, but the army took him, anyway.  The cousins attended boot camp and other training together.

At one point, a captain came to his barracks and asked if he could “talk Indian.”  He said he could, and was told that the general wanted to see him.  Like any other soldier would, he wondered what he had done wrong.  He was told to get a haircut, take a shower, and dress in his best clothes.  He was also coached to stand two feet from the general, salute, and say his name, rank and serial number.

Fortunately, Major General Paul Mueller did not stand on ceremony.  Wolf Guts told Mueller that he could speak, read and write the Lakota Sioux Language, and that his cousin, Iver, was serving at the same camp.  “I hit the jackpot,” was Mueller’s reaction.   Wolf Guts said, “I don’t want no rank, I don’t want no money. I just want to do what I can to protect America and our way of life.”

Two other Lakota from South Dakota — Roy Bad Hand and Benny White Bear — were also recruited. The four Lakota Code Talkers learned how to operate military radios, and worked with officials to develop coded messages, which helped the army to move troops and supplies without tipping off the Japanese.

Wolf Guts remembered a time when he started laughing one day while transmitting a message to Iver.

“Are you laughing at me?” asked Iver.

“No, I’m laughing at the Japanese who are trying to listen to us,” Clarence said in Lakota.

Code Talkers from some other tribes were specifically told not to talk about their activities, but when Wolf Guts went home after the war, he didn’t necessarily realize that his service as a Code Talker was a classified secret.  He just wanted to forget the war, and didn’t like to talk about it.  When information about the Code Talkers was declassified, all of a sudden, he was suddenly a busy man.

He received an honorary degree from Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, SD.  He rode in the Rapid City American Legion parade, traveled to Oklahoma City as a special guest at the opening of a traveling exhibit on the code talkers, spoke at the American Indian Veterans Conference in Wisconsin and was honored at a national WWII conference in New Orleans where he was given the red, white and blue “flag” shirt that he is pictured in.   He traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify for the legislation to award Code Talkers with Congressional Medals.

Clarence Wolf Guts worked as a rodeo bronc rider after the war, and continued to drink heavily, a bad habit from his war days.  In his old age, he regretted that alcohol kept him from making much of his life, and he attributed the deaths of both of his daughters to alcohol.  He stated that many of his relatives also suffered from alcoholism.  After he broke his ankle in Cody, Nebraska, he retired from the rodeo and worked on farms and ranches near the reservation.  He married and had two daughters and a son before divorcing in 1959.  He was interviewed for an article in the May/June 2007 edition of South Dakota Magazine, from which I got the information about him for this blog post.  He died in June 2010, at the age of 86.

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