Fort Meade observes Native American Heritage Month
November 21, 2012
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (Nov. 21, 2012) -- Thanks to the efforts of Marine Navajo code talkers in World War II, the United States was able to capture the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima.
"We would not have taken this island if it had not been for the Navajo code talkers protecting our communications," said David Hatch, senior historian at the National Security Agency's Center for Cryptologic History, quoting the chief signals officer for the Marines at Iwo Jima.
Hatch shared this, and many other little-known facts about the contributions of Native American code talkers in World War I and World War II, during his lecture for the installation's annual observance of Native American Heritage Month on Nov. 15.
The 90-minute event, held at McGill Training Center, was hosted by the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade and the Fort Meade Equal Opportunity Office.
Col. Jennifer Buckner, commander of the 780th MI, said the observance was held "to honor a small band of warriors who created an unbreakable code in the ancient language of their people and really changed the course of modern history."
Hatch, who earned a doctorate in international relations from American University in Washington, D.C., called the contributions of Native American code talkers "a story of sacrifice, a story of victory that everyone ought to know."
The first Native American code talkers served in World War I after America's first infantry unit was unexpectedly thrown into combat when a French line collapsed, Hatch said.
The unit was under constant shell fire and feared that its communications could be intercepted at the frontline by the Germans. By chance, an officer in the unit heard several National Guardsmen from the Choctaw nation conversing.
The men were "talking in a language he did not recognize," Hatch said.
The officer came up with the idea to use the Choctaws as communicators in defense against the Germans.
"The communications were absolutely secure, and the regiment was able to take the Germans by surprise," Hatch said.
In the period between the world wars, Hatch said, the Germans heard stories of the Choctaw communicators and sent language professors and sociologists to the United States to "study" the Plains Indians. But the FBI discovered the plan and "ran them off," Hatch said.
As the U.S. prepared for World War II, the Marines were persuaded to recruit Navajos as code talkers after several Navajos in Los Angeles conducted a demonstration of their skills for senior Marine leaders in San Diego.
A Marine commander recommended a Navajo code talker program to military leaders in Washington, D.C., and the Marines were authorized to recruit the Native Americans.
The Army recruited Comanche code talkers at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Hatch said because there were many dialects among the Comanche tribes, the Native American Soldiers had to agree to use words that were common in regional dialects.
All the Native American code talkers underwent signal training and learned how to use Morse code, string communications wire and to operate radios. They performed regular communication duties and also served as code talkers.
All of the Native Americans were assigned to regular combat units.
Hatch said that in addition to the Navajo and Comanche peoples, the Cherokee, Lakota Sioux, Hopi and Wenebego also served as code talkers in World War II.
The first code talkers to serve in actual combat were the Sauk and Fox peoples who fought against the Germans and Italians in North Africa.
The Navajo Marines served throughout the Pacific, particularly at Guadalcanal. Hatch said the commanding officer at Guadalcanal praised their work, calling it "the best communications security" the commander ever had.
The Comanche Soldiers went into combat on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Hatch said the first message out of Utah Beach was in Comanche.
The code talkers provided military leaders with "security, speed and self-authentication," Hatch said.
Despite the federal government's history of oppression against Native American peoples, Hatch said many Native Americans enlisted to serve in World War II because they were "angry at Japan for Pearl Harbor" and angry "about the atrocities in Nazi-occupied Europe."
Hatch said although the Navajos were defeated by the Army in the late 19th century and were forced to walk several hundred miles to a prison where they were held for many years, their descendants still served in the military.
"These people had every right to have a grudge against the U.S. government," Hatch said.
The fact that Native Americans enlisted -- and in large numbers -- "is a testimony to the depth of their feeling for the country," he said.
Among the many falsehoods about the code talkers is that Native Americans experienced racial indignities. Hatch said although America was "a deeply racist" society during World War II, the code talkers "were not affected quite so much" by racial prejudice.
"By and large there was no wholesale or institutional racial episodes in terms of the code talkers," he said.
The service of the Native American code talkers was an official military secret until the 1960s. As a result, Hatch said they were not recognized for their contributions while they served.
In 2002, Congress authorized a gold medal for the code talkers, but Hatch said that many had died before they could be honored. When it comes to the code talkers, the recognition of their efforts came "too little, too late," he said.
In addition to the lecture, last week's observance featured photographic displays of Native American code talkers and various Native American peoples, as well as displays of Native American pottery and dolls, and books about native peoples.
Col. Deitra Trotter, commander of the 781 MI Battalion who is of Blackfoot ancestry, said the presentation was "wonderful, enlightening and very educational."
Trotter said she knew the code talkers were important in the war effort, "but I didn't know senior leaders came to value them so much," she said.