The name code talkers is strongly associated with bilingual Navajo speakers specially recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in their standard communications units in the Pacific Theater. Other Native American code talkers were used by the United States Army in both World War I and World War II, using Cherokee, Choctaw and Comanche soldiers. Soldiers of Basque ancestry were used for code talking by the US Marines during World War II in areas where other Basque speakers were not expected to be operating.
In the days of World War I, company commander Captain Lawrence of the U. S. Army overheard Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb conversing in the Choctaw language. He found eight Choctaw men in the battalion. Eventually, fourteen Choctaw men in the Army's 36th Infantry Division trained to use their language in code. They helped the American Expeditionary Force win several key battles in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in France, the final big German push of the war. Within 24 hours after the Choctaw language was pressed into service, the tide of the battle had turned, and in less than 72 hours the Germans were retreating and the Allies were in full attack.
Adolf Hitler knew about the successful use of code talkers during World War I and sent a team of some thirty anthropologists to learn Native American languages before the outbreak of World War II. However, it proved too difficult to learn all the many languages and dialects that existed. Because of Nazi German anthropologists' attempts to learn the languages, the U.S. Army did not implement a large scale code talker program in the European Theater. Fourteen Comanche code talkers took part in the Invasion of Normandy, and continued to serve in the 4th Infantry Division during further European operations. Comanches of the 4th Signal Company compiled a vocabulary of over 100 code terms using words or phrases in their own language. Using a substitution method similar to the Navajo, the Comanche code word for tank was "turtle", bomber was "pregnant airplane", machine gun was "sewing machine" and Adolf Hitler became "crazy white man."
Two Comanche code-talkers were assigned to each regiment, the rest to 4th Infantry Division headquarters. Shortly after landing on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, the Comanches began transmitting messages. Some were wounded but none killed.
In 1989, the French government awarded the Comanche code-talkers the Chevalier of the National Order of Merit. On 30 November, 1999, the United States Department of Defense presented Charles Chibitty with the Knowlton Award.
Meskwaki men used their language against the Germans in North Africa. Twenty-seven Meskwaki, then 16% of Iowa's Meskwaki population, enlisted in the U.S. Army together in January 1941.
His superiors were justifiably wary. There were 35 Basque Jesuits in Hiroshima, led by Pedro Arrupe. In China and the Philippines, there was a colony of Basque jai alai players and there were Basque supporters of Falange in Asia. The American Basque code talkers were kept from these theaters; they were initially used in tests and in logistic information for Hawaii and Australia.
On 1 August, 1942, Lieutenants Nemesio Aguirre, Fernández Bakaicoa and Juanna received a Basque-coded message from San Diego for Admiral Chester Nimitz warning him of the upcoming Operation Apple to remove the Japanese from the Solomon Islands. They also translated the start date, 7, August, for the attack on Guadalcanal. As the war extended over the Pacific, there was a shortage of Basque speakers and the parallel Navajo program came to be preferred.
Philip Johnston proposed the use of Navajo to the United States Marine Corps at the beginning of World War II. The idea was accepted, and the Navajo code was formally developed and modeled on the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet that uses agreed-upon English words to represent letters. As it was determined that phonetically spelling out all military terms letter by letter into words—while in combat—would be too time consuming, some terms, concepts, tactics and instruments of modern warfare were given uniquely formal descriptive nomenclatures in Navajo (the word for "potato" being used to refer to a hand grenade, or "tortoise" to a tank, for example).
A codebook was developed to teach the many relevant words and concepts to new initiates. The text was for classroom purposes only, and was never to be taken into the field. The uninitiated would hear truncated and disjointed strings of individual unrelated nouns and verbs. The code talkers memorized all these variations and practiced their rapid use under stressful conditions.
As the war progressed, additional code words were added on and incorporated program-wide, and in other instances, informal short-cut code words were devised for a particular campaign and not disseminated beyond the area of operation. To ensure a consistent use of code terminologies throughout the Pacific Theater, representative code talkers of each of the U.S. Marine divisions met in Hawaii to discuss shortcomings in the code, incorporate new terms into the system, and update their codebooks. These representatives in turn would train the other code talkers who could not attend the meeting.
Non-speakers would find it extremely difficult to accurately distinguish unfamiliar sounds used in these languages. Additionally, a speaker who has acquired a language during their childhood sounds distinctly different from a person who acquired the same language in later life, thus reducing the chance of successful impostors sending false messages. Finally, the additional layer of an alphabet cypher was added to prevent interception by native speakers not trained as code talkers, in the event of their capture by the Japanese. A similar system employing Welsh was used by British forces, but not to any great extent during World War II; Welsh was used more recently in the Balkan peace-keeping efforts for non-vital messages.
Navajo in particular was an attractive choice for code use because few people outside the Navajo themselves had ever learned to speak the language and virtually no books in Navajo had ever been published. Outside of the language itself, the Navajo spoken code was not very complex by cryptographic standards and would likely have been broken if a native speaker and trained cryptographers worked together effectively. The Japanese had an opportunity to attempt this when they captured Joe Kieyoomia in the Philippines in 1942 during the Bataan Death March. Kieyoomia, a Navajo Sergeant in the U.S. Army, was ordered to interpret the radio messages later in the war. However, since Kieyoomia had not participated in the code training, the messages made no sense to him. When he reported that he could not understand the messages, his captors tortured him . Given the simplicity of the alphabet code involved, it is probable that the code could have been broken easily if Kieyoomia's knowledge of the language had been exploited more effectively by Japanese cryptographers. The Japanese Imperial Army and Navy never cracked the spoken code, and high ranking military officers have stated that the United States would never have won the Battle of Iwo Jima without the secrecy afforded by the code talkers.
The code talkers received no recognition until the declassification of the operation in 1968. In 1982, the code talkers were given a Certificate of Recognition by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who also named August, 14 "Navajo Code Talkers Day." On December 21, 2000, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, Public Law 106-554, 114 Statute 2763, which awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to twenty-nine World War II Navajo code talkers. In July 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush personally presented the Medal to four surviving code talkers (the fifth living code talker was not able to attend) at a ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. On September 17, 2007, 18 Choctaw code talkers received the Texas Medal of Valor (posthumously) from the Adjutant General of the State of Texas, for their World War I service. On December 13th, 2007, H.R. 4544, the Code Talker Recognition Act, was introduced to the House of Representatives. The Code Talker Recognition Act recognizes every code talker served the United States with a Congressional Gold Medal for their tribe, and a silver medal duplicate to each code talker, including eight Meskwakis.