During World War I, communication methods among the troops and their leaders were highly vulnerable. Phone lines were easily tapped, buzzer phones took time to decide, and one in four runners was killed or captured by the enemy.
The need to transmit information secretly and reliably gave rise to the “code talkers” – and some of them are still around today to tell their tale.
Northeastern State University welcomed a special guest speaker Thursday to discuss the history of American Indian code talkers in the U.S. armed services.
Dr. Williams C. Meadows spoke before a crowd of about 200 in the auditorium of the W. Roger Webb Educational Technology Center. Meadows, the author of two books, told of the origins of the first applications of Native Americans using their languages to relay coded messages.
“It really didn’t start until very late in the First World War, around October, during the Meuse-Argonne campaign,” Meadows said. “It was very difficult to keep communications secure.”
While a number of tribes contributed code talkers in the Great War, documentation of their application is sketchy.
“There are two groups we have absolute dates for,” Meadows said. “The first group is the Eastern Band of Cherokee, from old National Guard units of North Carolina and South Carolina, which used the code from around Oct. 7 or 8 (1918) until the end of the war. The Choctaws used their code during a three-day period, Oct. 26-28, during the attack on a place called Forest Farm.”
While code-talking proved successful, the military realized the tribal languages did not have words for some of the hardware on the battlefield. Code words were formulated but never used before the armistice. However, military interest in the use of Native American languages to confound enemy code-breaking was piqued.
The U.S. Army and Navy immediately studied the application of code-talking at the dawn of the Second World War. The Navy decided not to use the tactic after testing, while the Army elected to continue use of established units, with no expansion of the program.
But the U.S. Marine Corps believed code talkers could be very useful, and formed the famous Navajo unit for deployment in the Pacific Theater.
Members of many tribes served as code talkers during the war. Code-talking “units” did not need numbers; two Meskwaki men could be invaluable for battlefield communications. But the Navajo unit was by far the largest, with 425 men.
“There were a number of reasons this communication was so successful,” Meadows said. “The languages were obscure, and many were largely unwritten. There was no use of mathematical code and it was not based on European language syntax. Then there was the addition of a coded vocabulary.”
Though the Japanese did eventually realize one of the codes was in the Navajo language, not a single code-talker encryption was ever cracked by the enemy in either theater.
Meadows’ visit was arranged by NSU’s Sequoyah Institute. The traveling exhibit, “Native Words, Native Warriors,” is on the second floor of NSU’s John Vaughan Library until April 7. The display is devoted to code talker and American Indian veterans of the world wars.