Code talkers: how Native Americans helped to win two world wars

February 29, 2024
Code talkers: how Native Americans helped to win two world wars

Language, code and codebreaking have played an important part in many conflicts and none more so that the two world wars. 100 years on from World War I, we look at the role that code talkers played in helping the Allied Powers to defeat the Central powers and how code talking developed by the time of World War II.

Code talkers and obscure languages

Code talkers were individuals during the 20th century who used lesser-spoken languages to communicate during wartime. By using obscure languages, the code talkers sought to ensure that any intercepted communications could not be understood and that battle plans and military tactics could therefore be kept secret. 

One of the most large-scale examples was the use of Native American languages by US soldiers during the two world wars. The US Marine Corps employed between 400 and 500 Native Americans to assist with code talking, using their native tongues to transmit secret messages conveying intelligence and tactics without fear that their communiques would fall into the wrong hands. 

Code talkers and World War I

Cherokee and Choctaw code talkers were particularly influential in World War I. Captain Lawrence first had the idea of using Native American languages for code when he overheard two of his men, Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb, talking in the Choctaw language. He rounded up the Choctaw speakers in his battalion (there were eight in total, and 14 spread across the division), training them to use their native language as code for tactical communications. 

The Choctaw speakers helped to win a number of key battles in France towards the end of World War I. Perhaps their most famous influence was during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the final last push by Germany. Within 72 hours of the Choctaw code talkers joining the effort, German troops were retreating and the Allies were able to push on towards victory. 

Cherokee code talkers also played an important role. They served alongside the British during the Second Battle of the Somme and became the first Native Americans to send coded messages while under fire during the war. 

Code talkers and World War II

By the time of World War II, the use of obscure language to code messages had evolved, with bilingual Navajo code talkers recruited to their Pacific Theater communications units by the US Marines. Verbal messages transmitted by telephone and radio were encrypted as a result, with formally developed codes helping to speed up the decoding for those on the receiving end. 

A variety of Native American languages were used during World War II, as well as the Basque (or Euskara language) in some regions. Conscious of the effective use of code talkers during World War I, Hitler attempted to gain knowledge of Native American languages as part of his tactics, sending 30 anthropologists to the US before war was declared. The variety of languages and dialects in use by Native Americans left the anthropologists stumped, but their efforts to learn were noted by the Allies, who avoided the large-scale use of code talkers in the European Theater of the war as a result. 

Comanche code talkers were used in the Invasion of Normandy though and their written records reveal something of the substitution method that was used in their transmissions. The Comanche word for ‘turtle’ meant tank, while a ‘sewing machine’ was a machine gun. Bombers were known as ‘pregnant airplanes,’ while Hitler himself was appropriately referred to in Comanche as ‘crazy white man.’

Final thoughts

Code talkers were an essential part of both World War I and World War II. They helped the allied forces to maintain secrecy around their communications, saving the lives of countless soldiers and ultimately helping them to victory. There are few instances in history where languages have been quite so influential in terms of their impact on the future of the world. 

How else has language been used in times of war throughout history and what lessons can we learn from it? Share your thoughts in the comments section. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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