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When you have codebreakers like Alan Turing to contend with, how do you come up with a code that even the smartest people alive can’t break? This episode tells the story of the Native American codetalkers, starting with the Choctaw codetalkers in WWI. en clair is a podcast about forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries from past to present. Below you will find data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.
Scott Holmes – Edge of Nowhere
Kai Engel – Smoldering
Kai Engel – Without Redemption
Lee Rosevere – Healing
Lee Rosevere – Affirmation
Credits, sources, and more
Huffman, S. (2000). The Navajo Code Talkers: A Cryptologic and Linguistic Perspective. Cryptologia, 24(4), 289-320
Marshall, S. (2012). A Hidden Story: American Indian Code Talkers. DttP: Documents to the People, 40(4), 27-30.
Meadows, W. C. (2007). North American Indian code talkers: Current developments and research. Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian Military: Historical perspectives, 161-214.
Meadows, W. (2002). The Comanche Code Talkers of WWII (pp. 4-7). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Santella, A. (2004). Navajo Code Talkers (pp. 11-13). MN: Compass Point Books.
Stein, G. C. (1972). The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. New Mexico Historical Review, 47(3), 257.
Woo, J. (2002). Windtalkers [Film]. MGM Distribution Co.
Code talker. (2020). Retrieved 9 June 2020
Greenspan, J. (2014/2019). How Native American Code Talkers Pioneered a New Type of Military Intelligence. Retrieved 9 June 2020
H.R.4544 – 110th Congress (2007-2008): Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008. Retrieved 9 June 2020
H.J.Res.444 – 97th Congress (1981-1982): A joint resolution to authorize and request the President to designate August 14, 1982, as “National Navajo Code Talkers Day”. Retrieved 9 June 2020, from https://www.congress.gov/bill/97th-congress/house-joint-resolution/444
Navajo Code Talkers and the Unbreakable Code. (2008). Retrieved 10 June 2020
Navajo Code Talkers | Short Documentary | EXPLORE MODE. (2019). Retrieved 10 June 2020
Winterman, D. (2014). World War One: The original code talkers. Retrieved 9 June 2020
Case S02E02 – Codetalkers
It’s night-time in early October of 1918. We’re on the Western Front, the major theatre of war during WWI, and more specifically, we’re in the middle of what would later become known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Forty-seven harrowing days will turn this military action into the second bloodiest battle in American history. By the close of November 1918, a combination of inexperience, tactical choices, and the global H1N1 influenza A pandemic will claim over 350,000 French, German, and American lives. Back on the frontlines, however, the end of November is a lifetime away. Before that seven hellish weeks can pass, 1.2 million US troops need to clear the Argonne Forest and reorganise into two forces. But there is a problem. A very serious problem.
US communications are compromised.
The German military has successfully tapped telephone lines, and not only are they intercepting the coded messages, they’re deciphering them too. But there’s more. The Germans are also capturing runners sent to deliver messages directly. In fact, during this time, one in every four runners is captured or killed (Greenspan, 2014).
But let’s get back to the Western Front. To the Argonne Forest. To that night in early October of 1918. A Company Commander for the 142nd Infantry Regiment, Captain Lawrence, is overhearing a conversation between two of his soldiers, Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb. But he doesn’t understand a word. And in that instant, Captain Lawrence has an idea that will change not only the direction of this war, but also the war that would inevitably come after it.
Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries. You can find case notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and links to further reading at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this podcast.
Wire in the blood
Why does it matter so much if US communications are compromised? Well, at its simplest, no comms, no army. Without instructions coming down from HQ to tell the infantry, airforce, navy, and ops what to do, instead of having lots of very large groups working together in seamless, coordinated harmony, you end up with an awful lot of people milling about with guns and bombs, wondering which way to point them. Comms are the nervous system in the military body. But every time a signal is sent to the hands to strike or the feet to march, that message is at risk of being picked up, understood, and acted upon by the enemy. Imagine you’re in a boxing match, for instance. If you know that your opponent’s brain just told their right fist to punch you in the jaw, you can quickly dodge, duck, and maybe even attack their now-undefended right-hand ribs. In other words, that split-second insight gives you a critical advantage. An opportunity to act to both protect yourself, and attack the enemy. The exact same principle operates, on a much larger scale, in the various arenas of war.
So, for as long as there have been wars, there have been comms – orders, briefings, updates, queries, emergency signals, and more besides. And for as long as there have been comms, there have been enemies trying to intercept them, all to gain that crucial advantage of foreknowledge. Of course, if you know the enemy is snooping on your comms, one logical step is to make the messages unreadable so that even if they are intercepted, it just doesn’t matter because the enemy will be unable to read them anyway. Thus, centuries ago, we learned that military comms needed to be encoded, or encrypted in some way. And very quickly, the enemy learned that they would need to crack these codes and encryptions. Thus, the intelligence arms race was born, and very quickly intensified.
“So you have codes,” the enemy said. “Bring forth the codebreakers.”
“Oh, you have codebreakers now?” replied the opponent. “Then we shall find better codemakers, and they will create even better codes.”
And back and forth it went, over the centuries. So, just as kinetic war with its physical weaponry and bloodshed evolved from swords and daggers to spitfires and destroyers, at the same time, an intellectual war of scientists and academics silently escalated, as each tried to create unbreakable codes, and tried in turn to crack the codes of their enemies, that they might reveal the contents and give their side that precious advantage of insight.
Comms, then, are one of the critical infrastructures of war, and because of their importance, they attract some of the most heated battles – not usually with guns or bombs, but more often with pens and brains. As all this suggests, successful interception and decryption by one side almost inevitably means more deaths and greater losses for the other. Instead of making an educated guess, the enemy can accurately dodge your expensive surprise attack and launch a precise, covert, damaging counter-offensive. They can deploy troops and resources only where needed, and focus their time accordingly. If they know your army is currently exhausted, they can take the opportunity to repair, recoup, reform, or worse, attack. And if they know an all-out attack is coming, they can plan, organise, execute.
With a few exceptions, it is generally better to be a much smaller force with complete access to all the enemy’s comms and total insight into all their movements and intentions, than it is to be a substantially larger force operating completely in the dark. And if you can have full insight whilst keeping your enemy completely shut out, that is a double win condition. Compromised communications, then, are not merely important. They’re absolutely critical. They can make the difference between not just winning or losing, but doing so in such a way that the outcome is keenly felt for generations.
The problem, though, as I’ve mentioned, is that for every new and better code that one side’s codemaker comes up with, the other side comes up with a better codebreaker, and eventually under the sheer weight of intellectual effort, many human-made codes will simply fail, especially if they are used many times for hundreds or thousands of message. Anything a human makes, a human can unmake, after all. So how do you come up with the uncrackable code, or at least, a code that will take so long to crack that the war will be over by the time the enemy has figured it out?
Bombs versus brains
Remember the Argonne Forest, on that night in early October of 1918, when the Company Commander for the 142nd Infantry Regiment, Captain Lawrence, overhears two of his soldiers, Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb talking? He doesn’t understand a word, and there’s a very good reason for this. They are speaking in their native language: Choctaw. At the time, this was spoken by only a few thousand people in the whole world, and very little of it was written down. In fact, only a few American Indian tribes had populations above 20,000 people, and any writing in that language that did exist tended to be only the Bible and hymns. (Winterman, 2014).
Now, every language is, technically, a code. In linguistics, we talk about people code-switching when we mean that they are going back and forth between two or more different languages, for instance. English is no less a code than Choctaw or ancient Greek or Dothraki. It’s just that some codes you’ll know the codebook for – you know what sense to assign to the various parts of it, and other codes, you don’t. The reason you have the codebook is that you were literally trained in it from babyhood onwards. However, English is obviously not a great code, linguistically speaking, or militarily speaking, for conveying top secret intel. Lots of people have that codebook completely memorised, so if the message is intercepted it can be cracked very quickly, if not instantly. By contrast, a language spoken by a tiny fraction of the world’s population, with very little in the way of written down grammar, is perfect.
Imagine, for instance, that someone intercepts a message in this mystery language. To recognise and identify a language you don’t speak, you need to have already had a reasonable amount of exposure to it. If you’ve never heard that language before, there’s no way, just from listening, to pluck its name out of thin air, nor to figure out who its native speakers might be. That’s assuming there even are any native speakers. After all, it could be a constructed language – a conlang.
Your first and most immediate option, then, is to try to brute force the code. In other words, you try to crack it from the outside, piece by piece, sound by sound, word by word, up through the vocabulary to the level of semantics and syntax and so on. It’s arguably the most difficult and labour intensive method, and depending on the language and the linguist, it’s not very likely to succeed. You might think, yeah, but babies do exactly this all the time. Well, yes, and no. Babies usually have caregivers who repeatedly point things out objects, name them, describe them, pick up words the baby says and extend them, encourage longer formulations, correct non-standard ones, and so on. They are extensively trained in the codebook by experienced users of that code. That’s very different from simply listening to the same string of noises that you’ve intercepted fifty times in a row and praying for the inspiration that will help you begin to understand them.
Anyway, let’s imagine the German military somehow get over this first obstacle and figure out that this is Choctaw. Maybe they intercept some other comms that give it away somehow. Whatever the case, their military intelligence analysts and linguists can now research this language and discover that it’s spoken by the Choctaw people who live in what is now North America. But their next obstacle will become apparent: the lack of written material. That is a major problem, because it’s easy to steal, or better yet, to make copies of writing. These copies can then be distributed to the military linguists and learned from by any number of people over the coming months and years. Once that written-down knowledge genie is out of the bottle, there’s no stuffing it back in. But in this case, without any realistic supply of books or texts to use, they have to move onto the next option: getting hold of a speaker of the language.
But how do you do this? Well, I mean, you could try to send one of your agents to infiltrate the US, find one of the very few speakers, and convince them to train you, but then you’ve just given yourself ten new headaches. Is your agent going to escape back again once they’ve learned? Try to convey a translation correspondence course back to HQ? Are you going to send them intercepted comms, have them translate them, and then send them back? I mean none of these are good. Telephone was still considered pretty sophisticated back then, but if your agent is transmitting, especially over enemy lines, then those translations could themselves end up being re-intercepted. And if you told your agent to smuggle the comms over land disguised or hidden somehow – look up steganography here – by the time the intel got back to you at HQ, it might be weeks out of date. And even if technology and time weren’t already against you, there’s another problem: the human brain. As anyone who has tried to learn another language during adulthood will already know, mastering a whole new language under intense pressure in a very short space of time is exceptionally difficult. Fluency cannot be achieved in months, or even, many would argue, in years. No matter how quickly an agent got in place, they still couldn’t start being useful for at least a few months. Back to our baby example from earlier: babies are usually fully immersed in one or more languages that they hear and practice every single day with lots of guidance and assistance and no prior learning to get in their way, and even with all of this, they will still only be just about adept at a basic level by around the age of four.
Four solid years to reach a basic level. The war might not just be over by then, the next war might already have begun.
Anyway, there is, of course, a much simpler solution. Not every Choctaw person is back home. Some are in the military, serving for the United States. And some are right there in places like France. In the Argonne Forest. Why go thousands of miles, across enemy borders to endear yourself to a Choctaw speaker on their homesoil if you might be fortunate enough to capture a native Choctaw speaker in battle just a few miles down the road?
Now, that sounds like a pretty good solution, until you consider one key problem. Imagine you are the enemy. You capture your Choctaw speaker. You tell them they better translate for you, or else, or you know, you use whatever persuasion you think will be most effective. You provide them with intercepted messages. And then they tell you what those messages say.
Or do they.
How are you going to know that their translations are genuine? After all, they’ll be the only person in the room, so to speak, who knows both sides of the metaphorical coin. You could make your punishments for mistranslations – should you ever find them out – so severe that the translator doesn’t dare make errors, deliberate or otherwise, but even if you do manage to convince your translator to do an exemplary, error-free job, you’re going to quickly discover that there’s yet another a problem.
Firstly, this exact scenario has already occurred to the US military. They have anticipated the codebook – that is, a native Choctaw speaker – falling into enemy hands. And alongside this, hand-in-hand with it, it turns out that Choctaw has what might seem initially like a disadvantage: it didn’t originally include many specialised military terms. There were no words for machine guns, or grenades, or casualties.
Your first reaction might be, well, how on earth can you be a top secret military communications strategy in battle if you don’t even have the basic lexicon? Well, these gaps and holes – what we would call underlexicalisation – turned into a superb advantage. The Choctaw speakers went ahead and coined their own coded words. For example, “little gun shoot” meant machine gun. “Stone” referred to grenades. “Scalps” were casualties. It became a bit like code Inception and it essentially further encrypted the language by creating a code within a code (Winterman, 2014). In other words, for the casual Choctaw soldier who had the misfortune to be captured in battle and forced to translate, they might get some of the message, but they couldn’t explain what this coded vocabulary meant.
And this is a good time to mention that not all Choctaw speaking soldiers were enlisted overnight into this new special function. The practicalities of it are that they are widely distributed, not all are willing, not all are capable, and the more of these secret codetalkers you recruit and train, the more there are to fall into enemy hands. Keeping the numbers small is actually essential. As a result, there evolve two types of codetalking, known as Type 1 and Type 2 Native American Code Talking (NACT). Each involves the use of Native American languages for communication purposes, but the main difference is that Type 1 has that extra layer – that special code-within-a-code element. Type 1 codetalkers receive varying degrees of formal code development and training, and they tend to be purposefully recruited. Type 2 is a more informal, casual use of non-coded Native American languages. The typical scenario here is that they’re accidentally discovered and then used once their potential is realised, but without any prior purposeful recruitment or training.
As you might have guessed, this very first instantiation was somewhere between Type 1 and Type 2. Captain Lawrence didn’t recruit these speakers deliberately to codetalk. Their fluency in Choctaw is very much an after-the-fact realisation, and that’s classic Type 2. However, they then created these extra codewords within the Choctaw language, and thus move directly into Type 1 NACT.
So how did this play out, in the Argonne Forest, with Captain Lawrence, Solomon Louis, and Mitchell Bobb? What actually happened next?
Captain Lawrence has Louis and Bobb call company headquarters where a few other Choctaw speakers are based, and he tells them to deliver a message in their native language. No shock, as you would absolutely expect, it’s instantly translated back into English. Faster than any machine of the day. Error free. Effortless. It’s so simple, quick, and perfect. According to our best information now, nineteen Choctaw soldiers are swiftly employed as The Choctaw Telephone Squad. In an exact replication of the first trial, the men send and receive messages in their native tongue which they then translate back into English. It’s yet another proof of concept. But it’s one thing to do this whilst relatively safe, messaging company HQ or each other as a test. It’s quite something else to do it for real, during a live military operation, where actual lives are at stake.
And that day swiftly comes.
It’s now pitch black on the night of the 26th of October, 1918, barely a fortnight after Captain Lawrence has overheard that very first fateful conversation between Louis and Bobb. Two companies of soldiers need to be withdrawn from the front under the cover of darkness. The codetalkers are employed to be the comms for the mission, relaying back and forth critical information as the two or three hundred soldiers silently make their way to safety. Remember, US comm are compromised. The telephone lines are tapped. It’s almost guaranteed that the enemy is listening in, and if they crack the code, they have the chance to launch a surprise attack. So will the codetalking work?
The mission is an outstanding success. The companies are safely withdrawn. The comms appear to have been impenetrable. The triumph has very unsurprising consequences. Only two days later the codetalkers are tasked with assisting in a plan to attack a strongly fortified German position called Forest Ferme. Seventy-two hours later, US and Allied troops are on the offensive, driving the Germans into full retreat.
It is quickly obvious how valuable and useful the Choctaw codetalkers are. Almost instantly, their covert communications are instrumental in helping US troops win several key battles. But just as this success is establishing itself, only a little over a month after the first mission, on the 11th of November 1918, the war ends. The consensus, however, is that had it continued, the codetalkers would have provided an incalculable advantage, and they would have saved countless lives. What evidence do we have for this?
For many, if they even know about wartime codetalking, most, if not all of what they’ve learned has come from the 2002 film, Windtalkers. It’s a reasonably good film. It follows the experiences of two Navajo codetalkers and their ‘bodyguards’ serving in a Marine Unit in the Pacific Theatre during WWII, and parts of the film are based on true events. But it’s drawn criticism. Mainly it overlooks the true experiences Navajo codetalkers and actually spends more time focussing on everyone else (Meadows, 2007:178-179). This is somewhat grimly ironic for reasons I’ll get back to later. The film also doesn’t look beyond Navajo, and this was not the only Native American language used for codetalking during WWII. It’s a little more understandable that the use of Choctaw in WWI doesn’t get a mention. It was, after all, a different war from two decades earlier, and the Choctaw soldiers only got a month to showcase what they could do. However, it’s also important to remember that the decision to use speakers of Navajo and other Native American languages during WWII was directly informed by the success of the Choctaw codetalkers at the end of WWI.
In fact, in the grand arena of a global war, this tiny gem, this momentary intelligence advantage of using Choctaw could have so easily vanished. There was a lot going on and not everyone was writing everything down and feeding it back to their superiors. It would have been so easy for it to be first unacknowledged – again, I’ll come back to this theme later – and then entirely forgotten. Fortunately, however, Philip Johnston, a WWI veteran, happens to both know the Navajo language due to his upbringing on a Navajo reservation by his missionary parents, and then he proposes the idea of Navajo codetalkers after reading about Choctaw codetalking during WWI.
The context now, however, is very different. This is the start of a new campaign, rather than the end of an old one, and the concept has already been proven successful. This time, much larger resources are thrown at the idea. Compared to the nineteen or so Choctaw codetalkers of WWI, the Navajo codetalking unit is over twenty times larger. More than 400 identified individuals will ultimately serve as part of the US Marine Corps 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions during WWII. Forming in the spring of 1942, the original group of Navajo recruits are dubbed the “first twenty-nine”, and they immediately impress the signals officer by accurately translating, transmitting, and retranslating a message in two and a half minutes – a feat that usually takes about four hours using the old system (Huffman, 2000:297).
In fact, the Navajo language is quickly found to be especially suited to codetalking. Even other Native American speakers find it particularly difficult to master. Why? Because Navajo is also a tonal language, similar to Mandarin, Punjabi, Igbo, Cantonese, Zulu, Thai, and so forth. This means that a difference in pitch and inflection can alter the meaning of a word. In English, for instance, if you say yes, or yes, or yes, it’s still just the word yes (although the pragmatic meaning might change). Essentially English is not a tonal language. By contrast, Navajo has four distinct tones for its vowels: low, high, rising, and falling (Huffman, 2000: 310). Speakers of non-tonal languages tend to struggle with tonal languages – not merely learning that the tones exist, but even just hearing the tones in spoken language. Additionally, at the time Navajo was a little-known language with no written alphabet. In other words, it could realistically only be translated by other speakers of the language.
Unsurprisingly, after the success of the Choctaw codetalking in WWI, Germany and Japan have been studying Native American languages, and this might have undermined the effort from the very beginning, but Navajo’s tonal aspect, the lack of writing, and the very few speakers all substantially complicate matters for the enemy (Santella, 2004:11-13).
Not just any speakers of Navajo are allowed to join the Marine Corps codetalking team. The two main requirements are fluent bilingualism in Navajo and English – no surprise there, but also candidates byhave to meet the necessary physical requirements. While some Native Americans are drafted – that is, legally obliged to serve whether they wish to or not, many volunteer, and some even falsify documents, hiding the fact that they are underage, so that they can join (Navajo Code Talkers, 2019).
Once formed, the Navajo team gets to work on developing their own code based on their native tongue. Just like Choctaw, Navajo lacks military words, and just as in WWI, these gaps in the lexicon are turned from a possible drawback into a major advantage. Submarines became “iron fish”. America is “Our Mother”. Fighter planes are “hummingbirds”, and so on (Marshall, 2012:28). As before, this creates a code within a code, but unlike the Choctaw team that only had time to coin about twenty new words, the Navajo code list ends up consisting of over 400 terms. No surprise, for security, these have to be memorised, since writing them down anywhere poses an immediate and substantial risk (“Code talker”, 2020; Greenspan, 2014).
In addition, the Navajo codetalkers develop a further system modelled, to some extent, on the NATO phonetic alphabet – that is Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and so on. A list of agreed-upon Navajo words are used to each represent individual letters, but the corresponding letter is not the first letter of the word as pronounced in Navajo. It’s the first letter of the word when translated back into English. This adds yet more encryption. For instance, if spelling the word DOWN the corpsman might speak the Navajo words “be” which translates to the English word “deer”, which gives you your D. Then they might use “a-kha” which translates to “oil” in English, giving you the O. “Glo-ih” translates to “weasel” – there’s your W. And “tsah” translates to “needle”’, your N. Thus you get DOWN (Marshall, 2012:28) but that’s been derived from “be akha glo-ih tsah”. Just remember: Navajo is tonal. I cannot speak Navajo at all, nor indeed any tonal language – I’ve spent a few years trying so I’m very sure about this – and that means all my pronunciations just then were abysmal. Guaranteed.
Now this is a nice way of doing the phonetic alphabet, but there’s a problem. With enough intercepted messages and enough time and effort, even this transposition can be cracked. Let’s say lots of certain types of plane are flying about – GX5s, for instance. If you’re referring to GX5 attacks over and over, that’s going to start to form a consistent pattern in the data, and consistency is how codes are cracked. English spelling too has its consistencies. Es are substantially the most common letter, and Zs are the least common. It’s possible to make a list of letter frequencies, compare them against a supposedly encrypted set of letters in, for instance, Navajo, and quickly work out which ones are standing in for the Es and the Ts and so on. Once you have just a few of them, you can start making educated guesses at the rest, and then the whole code falls apart. Frequency analysis is just one method of codebreaking, and, in technical terms, a one-to-one transposition cipher like this, where you always switch one thing for one other thing, just isn’t all that secure. So an extra layer of complexity is added. Instead of just having one word for each letter, the Navajo speakers agree on three possibilities for each letter, and any of the three options can be chosen (Navajo Code Talkers and the Unbreakable Code, 2008).
In the end, the code is so sophisticated that even other Navajo speakers find it impossible to decipher. For instance, Joe Kieyoomia who is being held as a POW in Japan is repeatedly handed intercepted messages to decode. Despite his best efforts, he simply cannot translate them into anything meaningful, and unfortunately, he is tortured as a result. But it shows that the Navajo code has achieved a level where it cannot be broken by an untrained native speaker even under the most awful duress. It can only be understood by those Navajo speakers who have been specially trained as codetalkers (Huffman, 2000:315-316).
Despite this complexity, however, one of the major advantages of the codetalkers is their speed. The mechanical systems of the day are extremely slow, sometimes unreliable, and can, of course, fall into enemy hands, along with the codebooks needed to operate them. But codetalking is almost as fast as ordinary conversation, and the codebooks have already been distributed, in the brains of the Navajo speakers. Just one example of their speed and effectiveness is the US victory in the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Three pairs of Navajo codetalkers work for two days straight, sending and receiving over 800 messages. And when later checked, these messages contain absolutely no errors whatsoever (Marshall, 2012:27).
In the end, there is a general belief – though we’re never likely to find out to the contrary – that enemy codebreakers never managed to decipher codetalker messages in either WWI or WWII (Greenspan, 2014). Such success seems to speak for itself, and yet, this story, like so many in the en clair series, does not end the way it should.
We go to war, but why
The first question that it’s fairly difficult to answer is why Native Americans would even want to enlist and serve in the US military to begin with.
Take the Choctaw people, for instance. The 19th century was especially difficult for them. During the War of 1812 they fought alongside the US but then they were forced into giving up most of their land to the government. Then, after the 1830 Indian Removal Act was signed into law, over the next fifty years, around 12,000 Choctaw were forced to relocate to areas west of the Mississippi River – a journey that cost around 2,500 lives and was later infamously dubbed the Trail of Tears (Winterman, 2014). And history has documented – though perhaps not loudly enough – many other awful acts and atrocities that Native American groups have faced. Why would they choose to fight alongside the very same people who had mistreated them and their ancestors. The answer, as in any case like this, is as complicated as any individual or group or culture. In his 2007 book on codetalkers, William Meadows suggests that:
Most joined for a complex combination of traditional sociocultural influences (warrior-based themes); acculturative influences (boarding school training); current economic factors (employment); patriotism for the defense of their own lands, peoples, and the United States; and the opportunity to travel outside of their local Indian community or reservation. (Meadows 2007: 166)
In fact, as I mentioned in passing earlier, voluntary enlistments are actually found to considerably outweigh drafts (Meadows, 2007:166). Ironically, however, that most invaluable asset that is busy saving lives abroad – the Native American language – is just one of the aspects of Native American culture that the US is working hard to stamp out. Enforced cultural assimilation is extreme. Native American children are being placed in state-run schools where they aren’t allowed to speak their native tongue without facing severe punishment. The appalling irony is that languages like Choctaw and Navajo are under severe threat as the US government at home seeks to eradicate the very thing that is giving them an incalculable military advantage abroad on the frontlines.
Despite this systemic oppression and appalling treatment, different groups of Native American peoples go to war on the side of the US. Perhaps some may have chose to do so precisely because they know what it is to live under tyranny. Whatever the case, despite the extraordinary success of the codetalkers, even after the war, there is little appetite for celebrating and honouring the contributions of these individuals, and unsurprisingly, therefore, there is no significant change in the attitudes surrounding Native American people back on US soil (Meadows, 2007:170-171).
Indeed, any recognition of Native American codetalkers has been painfully slow, and it varies heavily depending on the group in question. From the end of WWII in 1945, almost thirty years elapse in which time the Choctaw codetalkers receive no formal recognition from the US military at all. The only acknowledgement of them is a single document in the American Expeditionary Forces records, a few brief references in newspaper articles, and whatever mention is made of them in various officers’ memoirs (Meadows, 2007:163).
It didn’t help, though it’s also not surprised, that the codetalkers themselves are sworn to secrecy. This is fairly standard for any sort of intelligence-based line of work in the military. Something so operationally beneficial is at its most useful when the fewest possible people know about it, so secrecy is essential to preserving its effectiveness. In fact, there have been claims, though unsubstantiated, that Navajo codetalking was used during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps not. Whatever the case, it isn’t until 1968 that Navajo codetalking is declassified, but even then it remains largely unheard of, especially for non-Navajos. In Marshall’s words, “[d]eclassification did not mean dissemination” (Marshall 2012:28).
Finally, in 1982, almost forty years years after the end of WWII, the Navajo codetalkers are nationally recognised. Public Law 97-225 deems the 14th of August, 1982 as “National Navaho Code Talkers Day.” Yes. Just the Navajo codetalkers. The rest of the codetalkers are, apparently, forgotten. Still.
It takes almost another 20 years for the House to pass a Bill in 2000 authorising the President to present Congressional Gold Medals – those are the highest civilian awards – to the Navajo codetalkers, and the ceremony takes place on the 26th of July, 2001. It may be for this reason that the Windtalkers film is then released a year later as the codetalkers begin to enter national public consciousness. But again, whilst all of this is progress, only the Navajo are acknowledged. Veterans from other Native American peoples ask why they, too, are not receiving the same level of recognition and finally, on the 15th of October 2008, half a century after the end of the war, within my adult lifetime, the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-420) is introduced. It is due to this law that, as of 2013, codetalkers from thirty-three different Native American peoples, including the Choctaw, are finally recognised and receive medals.
Sadly, this is a fairly bittersweet success. The recognition, though small, is arriving at last, but for many it is simply too late. The majority of veterans have already passed away before this recent surge of interest and recognition concerning codetalking. And now that there is interest, it’s become clear how little we know about codetalking. There are few documents, the accounts are scattered, and many codetalkers took their stories with them to the grave, honouring their commitment to secrecy and not even telling their closest loved ones about what they had done during the war. There is no real way to fix this incalculable loss of human history, nor to make up for decades of recognition that never happened, but there is one thing we can do, and that’s to know the names of those very first codetalkers who paved the way for everything that came afterwards.
Choctaw codetalkers, as you now know, were the original codetalkers who served in WWI. They were part of 141st, 142nd and 143rd Infantry Regiments. There are currently 19 Choctaw soldiers who have been identified, and their names are as follows:
- Albert Billy
- Mitchell Bobb
- Victor Brown
- Ben Caterby
- Benjamin Colbert
- George Davenport
- Joseph Davenport
- James (Jimpson M.) Edwards
- Tobias Frazier
- Benjamin W. Hampton
- Noel Johnson
- Otis Leader
- Solomon Bond Louis
- Pete Maytubby
- Jeff Nelson
- Joseph Oklahombi
- Robert Taylor
- Walter Veach
- Calvin Wilson (Meadows, 2007:185)
Did this episode pique your curiosity? Would you like to know more about wartime cryptography and decryption? What it’s like to be on the side of the codebreakers? Maybe even learn something about those slow mechanical methods of encryption and decryption I touched on in this episode? Well, if you haven’t already, listen to episodes 13, 14, and 15 from the end of Season 01.
The episode was researched and fact-checked by my intern, Marisa Dooley, and it was narrated and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. However this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior efforts of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, and more besides.
The address for the blog is wp.lancs.ac.uk/enclair. And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair. Or if you like, you can follow me on Twitter at DrClaireH.