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The Language of Victory: American Indian Code Talkers of World War I and World War II

The Language of Victory: American Indian Code Talkers of World War I and World War II

by Gary Robinson

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Thanks to the 2002 Hollywood film Windtalkers, the Navajo code talkers of World War II emerged from the annals of history to become world famous. But few people know that at least twenty other American Indian languages were used to send coded military messages during World War I and II—messages that were never decoded by America’s enemies. Relying


Thanks to the 2002 Hollywood film Windtalkers, the Navajo code talkers of World War II emerged from the annals of history to become world famous. But few people know that at least twenty other American Indian languages were used to send coded military messages during World War I and II—messages that were never decoded by America’s enemies. Relying on US Department of Defense documents, never-before-seen or heard interviews with Choctaw, Comanche, and Navajo code talkers, and other primary sources, filmmaker and American Indian historian Gary Robinson delivers a meticulously researched account of this little-known part of US history. In this multifaceted story, Robinson discusses the evolution of military communications and delves into the historical, cultural, and linguistic developments of the American Indians prior to World War I that led to their significant contribution during both world wars. Robinson digs deeper than the historical record. With skillful precision, he contrasts the changing federal government policies that transformed Native American languages from cultural relics worthy only of the trash bin to valued gems demanding preservation. He also questions how America’s history might have been altered if missionaries and government agencies had successfully eliminated America’s indigenous languages. Engaging and brilliantly constructed, The Language of Victory presents a compelling contribution to the historiography of World War II and the American Indian.

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The Language of Victory

American Indian Code Talkers of World War I and World War II
By Gary Robinson

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Gary Robinson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-0346-4

Chapter One

Military Communications: An Overview

Communicating effectively has always been an important part of waging war and keeping the peace. Military commanders must be able to communicate orders to their units in the field to execute their strategies and win battles, and reports must be sent from the battlefront back to headquarters so that commanders know if their strategies are working.

Over the centuries, as armies grew larger and more complex and the distances between headquarters and the frontlines increased, it became more and more difficult to orchestrate various military components into one successful operation. Thus separate communications units developed to handle the complexities of military communications. And, of course, an extremely necessary component of these communications is secrecy—the enemy must not be able to find out what your plans are—where and how and when you're going to strike. Secrecy and surprise are key elements when it comes to winning victories.

As long as military units remained relatively small and engaged in close hand-to-hand combat, a commander's booming voice provided an effective means for transmitting orders on the battlefield. Armies also successfully used musical instruments, such as trumpets and bugles, as signaling devices. But for long-distance communications, ancient commanders often relied on runners or mounted messengers.

The use of messengers for delivering all kinds of messages developed in most societies in ancient times, and, in some cases, this method still constitutes a valuable means of direct communication to an intended receiver over long distances.

Legend has it that in 490 BC a Greek runner delivered to Athens the news of Greece's victory over the Persians at a place called Marathon, and then the runner died from the exertion. This heroic feat is said to have given rise to the athletic event known as the marathon.

Later, military leaders such as Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Caesar developed elaborate systems of relays by which messages were carried from one messenger post to another by messengers mounted on horseback and traveling at top speed. In that way, they were able to maintain contact with their homelands during far-off military campaigns and to transmit messages with adequate speed.

At the close of the twelfth century, the Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan not only established an extensive system of messenger posts from Europe to his Mongol capital, but he also made use of homing pigeons as messengers. As his military victories grew and the lands falling under his command stretched, he established pigeon relay posts across Asia and much of eastern Europe. Because he was both political and military ruler of his domains, it was necessary for him to send kingly orders to all sectors of his kingdom, and he effectively used both human and fowl messengers to transmit instructions to his subordinates.

Many American Indian societies used foot messengers to communicate not only military messages but other types of important social messages as well. A prime example of the effective use of the "Indian runner" was during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in which the American Indians of New Mexico threw off the oppressive yoke of Spanish rule. Popé, the spiritual and military mastermind of the revolt, prepared a set of knotted ropes for each of his runners to carry to the far-flung pueblo villages strewn up and down the Rio Grande. Each knot on the cord represented a day's count until the fateful day of revolution, when all of the Pueblos would rise up against the hated outsiders. And rise up they did, expelling the Spaniards from their midst, but unfortunately for the pueblos it was not for good.

Of course, the process of delivering messages on foot is comparatively slow and is really only effective when the distances are not too far.

American Indians used several other means of communications for warfare and hunting that proved both appropriate and successful within their natural lifestyles. Certain animal calls signaled that warriors were in place and ready for attack. Smoke signals might represent the call of danger or the return to safety and peace. Drums were sometimes used to summon warriors or neighboring camps. Charcoal and ochre markings in prearranged locations could indicate the location of game or an enemy. Trail signs made of stacked stones or tree cuts could indicate the direction for hunters or warriors to follow or the direction to avoid. Tribes of the Plains, who spoke different languages, developed a system of intertribal sign language made up of arm and hand gestures that allowed for the effective exchange of information.

Back in Europe near the end of the eighteenth century, the French engineer Claude Chappe developed a system of communication that employed towers or poles with movable arms near the top. The raising or lowering of the arms in the proper combinations indicated specific letters, words, or phrases. Using this system, messages could be sent over long distances in hours rather than days. In the early 1800s, visual telegraph duties, known as semaphores, were assigned to units of engineer troops. Various forms of these "optical telegraphs" were developed and used by different European nations.

At the same time that these elementary methods of signal communication were being evolved on land, a comparable development was going on at sea. Early signaling between naval vessels was by prearranged messages transmitted by flags, lights, or the movement of a sail.

The idea of using coded messages came into use in Europe in the sixteenth century. Many codes were based simply on the number and position of signal flags or lights or on a number of cannon shots. In the seventeenth century, British admirals and ship commanders developed regular codes for naval communication, and, near the end of the eighteenth century, British Admiral Richard Kempenfelt devised a plan of flag signaling similar to the one still in use today. Of course, these methods have been refined and improved through the decades.

In the United States, various branches of our fledgling country's military came into being through acts of Congress in the 1780s. And each branch of service put to use the best in existing means of military communications.

However the most significant development of signal communication for wartime use came after the invention of the electric telegraph by Samuel F. B. Morse. He successfully demonstrated electric communication between Washington, DC, and Baltimore in 1844, and immediately provided a completely new means of rapid signal communication. His Morse code, in which letters of the alphabet are communicated through a series of dots and dashes, used an electric key and sounder. This new technology was soon put to military use to supplement the various means of visual signaling.

In the United States, the new device saw limited service during the war against Mexico (1846–1848) because it still had a few bugs and was disastrously unreliable. So the army only used the telegraph to communicate from its Washington office to offices in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. As a precautionary measure, however, each telegraphed message was followed up with a letter.

In 1867, the British navy adopted a system of "flash signaling," which was developed by a member of its high command. This was essentially an adaptation of the Morse code to lights. But the first actual application of the telegraph in time of war was made by the British in 1854 during the Crimean War. However its capabilities were not well understood, and therefore it was not widely used. Three years later, the Brits made full use of the telegraph in the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and its use was a deciding factor in victory.

The United States Army became the first army in the world to create a separate communications unit, beginning with the appointment in 1860 of a signal officer to the War Department's army staff. This event marked the official beginning of the US Army Signal Corps. The flag-signaling system then put to use had been developed by an assistant army surgeon, Albert J. Myer, who had previously worked both as a civilian telegraph operator and an aid to the deaf. Combining these two experiences, he came up with the signaling system that became the army signal corps' first wartime signaling system. Myer was named the first signal officer and given the rank of major.

Ironically, the first use of Myer's signaling system in the field was against the Navajos in October of 1860. Myer and his men accompanied troops on the campaign, maintaining communication between the columns, performing reconnaissance, and reporting by signals. The simplicity of the system, with its lightweight, portable equipment, made it well suited to use in the rugged terrain of the southwest.

When the opening shots of the Civil War were fired the following spring at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the newly formed army signal corps was called into action. Myer became its first instructor and operations supervisor.

As military signaling became more routine and systematic within the armed forces, signal security started to become a serious problem: enemy forces could learn the meanings of the messages that were being sent and therefore anticipate the coming action. During the Civil War, the chief of staff of the Army of the Potomac expressed this very concern during an important battle when he ordered that signals not be used because the enemy could read them. The chief signal officer at the time complained in his report of the battle that "the corps is distrusted, and considered unsafe as a means of transmitting important messages. It is well known that the enemy can read our signals when the regular code is used."

To prevent Confederate forces from reading Union messages, the signal corps developed mechanized means of creating codes that could be changed on a regular basis, therefore making it next to impossible for an enemy to break the code. This became a regularly used technique that extended well into WWII. Both senders and receivers would be given a new code clue that would allow them to adjust their "cipher wheels" to find the matching code. As long as both ends of the transmission were on the same place on the wheel, coded messages could be sent without enemy translation.

Near the close of the nineteenth century, the wireless telegraph, or radio, made its appearance, and military leaders the world over quickly saw its potential for military and naval signaling. Development was rapid, and by 1914 the new technology had been adopted and put to extensive use by the armies and navies of the world. With such widespread application, it soon became obvious that wireless telegraphy had its flaws when it came to military messaging: it lacked secrecy because messages could be easily heard by ally and enemy alike. This led to the further development of extensive and complicated codes and ciphers as a necessary part of military signaling. And a new battlefield of the airwaves arose, pitting the cryptographer against the cryptanalyst on each side of any international conflict. A nation's ability to create an unbreakable communication code for wartime use became the ultimate challenge.

With the need for rapidly developed technical improvements to radio communications for wartime applications, American resources in the military, scientific, and industrial fields joined forces to create better and more reliable means of transmitting messages during battle. Dramatic technical developments during and after WWI made it possible for signal corps personnel to consistently communicate vital messages that saved lives and won wars. But throughout all the technical advances in communications, it has always been the American soldier who has brought the courage, determination, and ingenuity necessary to make the equipment work under fire.

Chapter Two

Tribes and Tribal Languages before World War I

As any fourth grade student knows, American Indian tribes have lived on the North American continent for thousands of years and have fought to defend their homelands, families, resources, and ways of life from all outside threats, including European immigrants, American pioneers, and the United States military.

Many tribes had well-developed warrior traditions that were more complex and contained more mental and spiritual depth than anything depicted in Hollywood westerns, and American history books are filled with the names of native warriors who put their lives on the line in defense of their people.

US military leaders from George Washington to Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt recognized the unique abilities of American Indian warriors to win battles using unconventional means with almost supernatural force, and they put those skills to successful use time and time again. (See the author's nonfiction book From Warriors to Soldiers to explore tribal warrior traditions and the history of American Indians in the military in more detail.)

One of the things native people fought for, and continue to fight for, is their identity and the right to maintain that identity. Language is a central and defining element of anyone's culture and personal identity. Contained within a language are a people's view of the world, their sense of place within it, and their relationship to it. Destroy a nation's language and you also destroy its connection to its own past and future.

People's ways of living, their histories, and their philosophies are all understood and communicated through language. Although most American Indians now speak English to some degree, many still consider their traditional languages to be very important. During the past one hundred years, many tribal languages have been lost or are now in danger of being lost. When the last speaker of a language passes away, that language becomes extinct, and therefore American Indian communities are working hard to keep their native languages alive.

As the United States strengthened its independence from European nations and grasped for larger pieces of the American continent, the nation's treatment of indigenous peoples fluctuated with the policies of annihilation, relocation, and assimilation. In the 1700s and 1800s, many tribes were forced off their lands and confined to reservations where they endured hardships that included racism, poverty, and efforts to eradicate their traditional cultures. Some of these efforts were part of a movement to "Americanize" the Indian.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830, which called for the relocation of tribes living east of the Mississippi River to lands west of the river, reflected the government's goal of removing Indians who were seen as impeding American expansion. While the law did not authorize the forced removal of tribal peoples, it authorized the president to negotiate land exchange treaties with tribes located in the eastern regions. A follow-up law, the Intercourse Law of 1834, prohibited US citizens from entering tribal lands granted by any such treaties without permission, though it was often ignored.

Though the Indian Removal Act made the relocation of the tribes voluntary, it was often abused by government officials, including President Andrew Jackson. One infamous example of this abuse is the Treaty of New Echota of 1835, negotiated and signed by a small faction of Cherokee tribal members—not the tribal leadership. It resulted in the forced relocation of the tribe in 1838, during Andrew Jackson's administration, in which an estimated four thousand Cherokees died in the march from their traditional homelands in the Carolinas to the recently created Indian Territory. This march became known as the Trail of Tears.

But in the decades that followed, white settlers encroached heavily into these western lands that had been set aside for tribes. American settlers eventually made homesteads from coast to coast, leaving no tribe untouched by the Americanizing influence of white traders, farmers, and soldiers.


Excerpted from The Language of Victory by Gary Robinson Copyright © 2011 by Gary Robinson. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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