Term Paper: Navajo Code Talkers of WWII

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Navajo Code Talkers

Eager to Serve: Navajo Code Talkers

The Navajo Code Talkers are a fascinating group of individuals who served in WWII as radio transmitters, mainly in the Marines.

Townsend 145) the complex and relatively unknown language of the Navajo served as a concentrated and ready made medium for transmitting military information in a secure manner to ensure the safety and integrity of military operations. The concept of Native American's serving in the military was not completely new but it took the very popular WWII as well as the indoctrination of hundreds of thousands of Native people's into the white culture, mainly through white education systems for the native peoples to eagerly seek enlistment in the American military. Although the United States basically annihilated the Native American Indian tribes, Indian men from the Navajo nation seemed more than willing to enlist in military service just fifty years later in 1941, when asked to do so specifically for the purpose of code transmission.

Townsend 145)

The Navajo way of life had been condensed to a "civilized" version and even the language was in jeopardy. Yet, here was a representative from the U.S. military seeking the Navajo's direct assistance in a popular war movement, one where another culture was being annihilated and the Navajo answered the call eagerly, likely hoping to witness and play a part in a white and therefore allowable "warrior" tradition and possibly in the long-term earn a lasting place in history for their language and culture.

American Indians enlisted for a myriad of reasons, but the press and government offices highlighted one unique motivation and ascribed to it the position of primacy. Pearl Harbor, it appeared to whites, ignited a latent "warrior tradition" that still simmered among Native Americans. Determined to capture honor and glory in combat as their ancestors had achieved, Indians readily volunteered their service to America's armed forces. As with most news stories and government reports, a strand of truth ran through published reports, and this particular line of thought was fundamentally valid. A warrior tradition certainly encouraged numerous Indians to enlist. Warrior societies had experienced a slow disintegration with each passing year since the cessation of Indian-white hostilities. In some Indian communities, ceremonies had vanished entirely. Combat duty, then, permitted Indians who historically maintained and valued warrior societies the opportunity to revitalize tribal culture

Townsend 78)

It is also clear from the descriptions of the manner in which the code talkers were recruited that the enlistment was considered a special and honorable act, and there are some who argue that without the code talkers the U.S. could have lost many engagements in the war, as the Navajo language was one of the only codes never broken by enemy forces in either Japan or Germany.

Jevec, and Potter 262)

It was in fact actually a civilian educator that brought the idea to the military and to some degree forced the question that went against the traditional code making and breaking standards of the military. It also must be made clear that there was a native code talking program which had begun in WWI, employing the Comanche people and language, that is often eclipsed by the popularity of the history of the Navajo Code Talkers in WWII and the fact that the WWII period is simply a much more popular period of history to study.

Lahti 144) in other words the idea was not completely novel and had been employed at an earlier time in history. Yet for the most part, in the past the military had sought to encrypt and then decipher complicated numerical and digit-based codes of transmitted material in English and military speak, but the time this took was astronomical and often created situations of urgency of action as any delay in tactical movements can make a serious difference for those on the ground and in the air.

As was the standard the military was relatively resistant to change but when Johnston developed a demonstration for upper ranking individuals using the Navajo language they were impressed by the speed at which transmissions could be decoded by the receiver and the complicated nature of the language itself, meaning it would be very unlikely to be decoded by the enemy.

Jevec, and Potter 262) the uniqueness of the language, having been recognized by the white government likely came as a nice surprise to the Navajo who were initially sought out at the boarding schools at Fort Defiance, Shiprock, and Fort Wingate, as these students (now young adults) would likely have been students in schools where native language speaking was not only frowned upon but punished with the rod. Just a few years earlier to cleanse the Indian of tradition through retraining children, often taking them from their homes and barring them from any expressions of their heritage, English only schools were the idea of the day.

Spack 120)

In February 1942, Philip Johnston approached Major James E. Jones, Force Communications Officer at Camp Elliot in San Diego, with a plan to use the Navajo language for battlefield radio transmissions. The son of a Protestant missionary, Johnston had lived among the Navajos for more than twenty years, and, during that time, gained fluency in the native language. He explained to Major Jones that the Navajos spoke a language unlike any other Indians and added that less than a dozen anthropologists had ever studied that part of Navajo culture. Even German scholars who visited Indian communities in the 1930s, including the Nazi propagandist Dr. Colin Ross, ignored the Navajo language. In essence, this peculiar language seemed safe from enemy understanding if incorporated into the Marine Corps' communication structure.

Townsend 145)

Johnston had successfully created a movement that might to some degree bridge the culture gap between the white culture that had overrun the native cultures and the native culture itself.

Navajo men who were recruited would likely have been relatively happy about the decision of the Marines to seek out code talkers who were actual Native members, rather than attempting to teach already enlisted white soldiers to speak and understand the Navajo language, a likely improbable task in such a short time. The value of such a decision gave the Navajo Code Talkers and the role they played a position of relative importance, and even significant danger as racial recognition was certainly possible and enemy capture would be essentially ensured if such recognition were made. This danger likely fed into the mystic of the warrior tradition, rather than detracted from the esteem of the role.

The basics of the program were such that the Navajo language was laid adjacent to a coding system that then became the mode of transmission through intimate and rapid intense training for the Navajo enlistees.

The Navajos soon demonstrated their ability to memorize the code and to send messages under adverse conditions similar to military action, successfully transmitting the code from planes, tanks, or fast-moving positions. The program was deemed so successful that an additional two hundred Navajos were recommended for recruitment as messengers on July 20, 1942. This prompted Philip Johnston to offer his services as a staff sergeant to aid in the development of the code talker program. On October 2, 1942, Johnston enlisted and began training his first class in November and spent the remainder of the war training additional Navajo recruits. After the new recruits went through the Marine Corps' basic training course, they came to Johnston for what he termed an "extremely intensive" eight-week messenger training course. As the code talker program grew, so did the development of the code. A cryptographer who monitored the code talkers' transmissions concluded that the code might be broken because using the alphabet to spell out words not in the Navajos' vocabulary produced too many repetitions. To alleviate this problem,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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