For anyone who would argue that language isn’t a powerful tool, we have two words for you this Memorial Day:
As we remember our veterans this year, we wanted to take a look at how the languages of some of our troops helped change the tides of war.
Although many Native American languages have been used as code in US wars—including Cherokee, Choctaw, and Meskwaki—the term Code Talkers is strongly associated with the Navajo men who were recruited by the US Marine Corps during World War II.
World War I: Native American languages came to the rescue
In the fall of 1918, two soldiers of the 142nd Infantry Regiment chatted among themselves in camp—probably recounting the day’s events, or sharing how they missed their moms’ cooking. But no one, specifically their captain who overheard the conversation, could understand what they were saying.
The regiment was deeply, and unsuccessfully, involved with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front in France. Germans had time and time again intercepted the messages from and cracked the code of the US forces. The American troops needed another tactic, and these Oklahoma boys, who were speaking their mother tongue of Choctaw, were about to become the key to outsmarting their opponents.
When the soldiers were asked if they knew of other Choctaw speakers in the battalion, they mentioned fellow speakers who were stationed at headquarters. They were immediately put to work relaying messages from the fields to their counterparts. And so The Choctaw Telephone Squad was born—so, too, was the modern military tactic of using Native American languages as a tool for encrypting intelligence communications.
Along with Choctaw, the Cherokee and Meskwaki languages were also employed for intelligence purposes in World War I with great success. After some time, though, there was a problem: the enemy was learning the languages. When Philip Johnston, a WWI vet and son of a missionary to the Navajos, learned that the US military was looking to solve this problem he knew that the Navajo language was the answer.
Having grown up on a Navajo reservation, Johnston was one of few non-Navajo speakers of this unwritten language and he understood that it could be pivotal to a successful military campaign. After presenting the idea to the Marines in early 1942, he went to the Navajo reservation in Flagstaff, Arizona, to recruit a group of men that would later be known as “The First 29.”
As the 382nd Platoon, the first all-Navajo platoon in the U.S. Marine Corps, the Navajos Johnston recruited were then sent to a newly established Field Signal School, where, with army cryptographers under Major Jones, they developed a code based on their language. They devised a list of 211 Navajo words to which they assigned new military meanings (the native word for “hummingbird” meant “helicopter,” for example, and “shark” signified “destroyer”) and another list standing for the letters of the Roman alphabet with which to spell out other English words. Johnston then devised an intensive eight-week messenger-training course. With this system firmly committed to memory, Navajo code talkers—whose numbers would exceed four hundred during the course of the war—served in all six marine divisions in combat in the Pacific and took part in every assault conducted from 1942 to 1945.
American National Biography
Though other Native American languages were used for the same purpose, the term Code Talkers is strongly associated with the Navajo men who fought in WWII. Due to the continued value of their language after the war, their stories remained untold until 1968, when the Navajo Code Talker program was declassified. In 1992, they were honored for their contributions to defense.
A note about the Rosetta Stone® Endangered Language Program. Founded in 2004 to help stave off the disappearance of Native American languages, Rosetta Stone experts collaborated with native speakers to create a program that is culturally and linguistically relevant to their respective communities. In 2011, the program stopped accepting applications for new software development, but we continue to support our partner groups in their implementation of Rosetta Stone software in their schools, homes, and communities.
Chester Nez, last of original Navajo code talkers, dies – CNN.com