Protectors of Army communications

By Maya GreenOctober 24, 2023

Native American Heritage Month observance
Keith Colson, a Tuscarora and enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, was the guest speaker at the National Native American Heritage Month observance on Aberdeen Proving Ground Nov. 18, 2022. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Angel Martinez-Navedo) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — Throughout November, the nation celebrates the culture and heritage of Native Americans. Native American Heritage Month also gives the Army an opportunity to recognize and express appreciation for the dedication of Native American Soldiers, Veterans, civilians, and families. This observance serves as a time to reflect on the significant contributions Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have made that contributed to the establishment and growth of the United States.

Native American Soldiers redefined military intelligence while protecting the Army’s communications. Their creation of a unique military code helped to defend not only the Army but also the nation.

Code talkers reform military intelligence

Throughout World War I, Choctaw and Comanche Soldiers pioneered code talking, which was expanded in World War II to create a military code that could not be broken by the enemy.

As the U.S. entered World Wars I and II, the military needed an efficient means of protecting its radio, telephone, and telegraphic messages from enemy intelligence. During this time, many Native Americans joined the armed forces and had a unique skill that would prove instrumental to the war effort. Each Native American tribe had their own language and dialect that few outside the tribes understood, many of which were not written down.

Before their arrival in France during World War I, the Germans had broken every American code used, resulting in the deaths of many U.S. Soldiers. However, the Germans never broke the Native Americans’ “code,” and these Soldiers became affectionately known as Code Talkers.

The Code Talkers then developed their own words for military terms that never existed in their native tongue. For instance, the word for “colonel” was translated to “silver eagle,” “fighter plane” became “hummingbird,” “minesweeper” became “beaver,” “half-track” became “racetrack,” and “pyrotechnic” became “fancy fire.”

The Army and U.S. Marine Corps utilized a group of 24 Navajo Code Talkers in the Pacific Theater, who fought in many bloody island campaigns. In North Africa, eight Soldiers from the Meskwaki tribe in Iowa served as Code Talkers in the 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Division. In Europe, the 4th Signal Company, 4th Infantry Division, was assigned 17 Comanche Code Talkers. From the D-Day landings at Normandy in June 1944, to the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge, they kept the lines of communications secure.

Soldiers from multiple tribes, including Kiowa, Winnebago, Chippewa, Creek, Seminole, Hopi, Lakota, Dakota, Menominee, Oneida, Pawnee, Sac, Fox, and Choctaw, served during the war.

Many of the Code Talkers continued in their military careers, serving during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Congress honors the code talkers’ service

For many years, the Code Talkers’ work remained classified. Then on June 18, 2002, Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act to acknowledge and emphasize the important part these Soldiers played in “performing highly successful communications operations of a unique type that greatly assisted in saving countless lives and in hastening the end of World War I and World War II.” The act further states that the Code Talkers operated “under some of the heaviest combat action... around the clock to provide information… such as the location of enemy troops and the number of enemy guns.”

Congress recognized the Code Talkers’ achievements, despite societal discrimination against them. The act states that at “a time when Native Americans were discouraged from practicing their native culture, a few brave men used their cultural heritage, their language, to help change the course of history.”

Leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate honored Native American Code Talkers in a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony held in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Nov. 20, 2013. The medal—Congress’s highest expression of appreciation—was awarded in recognition of the valor and dedication of these service members during World War I and World War II. The nation’s highest civilian honor was awarded to 33 tribes.

Twenty-nine Native American Soldiers have been awarded the Medal of Honor, our country’s highest military decoration.

Throughout the month, we recognize more than 150,000 Native American and Native Alaskan Veterans for their service and sacrifice, while we support the 8,000 service members currently serving across all military branches. Their legacy of courage and selfless service will inspire generations to come.

Native American Heritage Month at APG

The Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense is hosting a Native American Heritage Month Observance Nov. 16, 2023, at 10:30 a.m., in the Myer Auditorium. This year's theme is, “Tribal Nations Soaring to New Heights: Fostering Unity through Indigenous Culture, Community, and History.”

Immerse yourself and learn about the generations of courage, contributions, and resiliency of this country’s Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities.

You may also join the observance virtually: