Washington, D.C. · August 14, 1982

Some 44,000 Native Americans served in the U.S. mili­tary during World War II. One-and-a-half times more Native Ameri­cans volun­teered for service than were drafted; indeed, Native Amer­i­can parti­ci­pa­tion in the war per capita exceeded any other group. Native Amer­i­cans served in all theaters, but pre­domi­nately in the Pacific.

No group of Native Americans has received as much fame as those from the Navajo Nation. Navajo Code Talkers played a pivotal role in every success­ful engage­ment against the enemy in the Pacific, from Guadal­canal to Oki­nawa. Because Navajo Code Talkers were them­selves the secret code of U.S. Marines, these men—former farmers and sheep­herders in the U.S. South­west—were highly prized and often heavily guarded. From the original 29 code talkers in 1942 who devel­oped their ingenious “secret wea­pon”—their 411‑word vocabu­lary in their native Dine tongue—at least 400 young Navajos trained as code talkers. The coded oral mes­sages they passed between them­selves were totally unin­tel­ligible to any­one else; in fact, their code was the first unbreakable code in U.S. history.

In the Battle of Sai­pan (June 15 to July 9, 1944), a Navajo Code Talker con­vinced a U.S. artil­lery unit in the rear that theirs was not a Japa­nese posi­tion on which Amer­i­can shells were raining (“friendly fire”) but an Amer­i­can one: eaves­dropping Japa­nese had learned to per­fectly imi­tate Amer­i­can radio commu­ni­cation between units except when it was in Navajo (Dine). During the Battle of Iwo Jima (Febru­ary and March 1945), six code talkers sent and received 800 field mes­sages working 24/7. During the war 13 Navajo Code Talkers were killed in action. After the war code talkers were forbid­den to speak of their ser­vice until 1968, when the Code Talker Operation was finally declassified.

Code talkers received wide public recog­ni­tion when Presi­dent Ronald Reagan desig­nated this date in 1982—the 37th anni­ver­sary of Japan’s uncon­di­tional sur­render—as National Code Talkers Day. In July 2001 the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers were awarded the Con­gres­sional Gold Medal. On Novem­ber 15, 2008, the Code Talkers Recog­nition Act of 2008 was signed into law by Presi­dent George W. Bush. The act recog­nized every Native Amer­i­can code talker who served in the U.S. military during both world wars with the exception of the already-awarded Navajo. Each nation was given a Con­gres­sional Gold Medal, to be retained by the Smith­sonian Institu­tion, and a silver medal duplicate was given to each code talker.

Native Americans in World War II

Navajo Code Talkers, Saipan, June 1944Native American Marine Reservists at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, October 1943

Left: Navajo Code Talkers, Saipan, June 1944. Code talkers are strongly asso­ci­ated with bilin­gual Navajo speakers spe­cially recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps to serve in their stan­dard com­mu­ni­cations units in the Pacific Theater. The Navajos’ lan­guage, Dine, has an elabo­rate syn­tax and gram­mar, and the spoken word uses tones the un­trained ear can­not easily distin­guish. So the code the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers developed befuddled the Japanese all during the war. Actually, Choc­taw Indians serving in the U.S. Army in France during World War I pio­neered code talking. Other Native Amer­i­can code talkers were deployed by the Army during World War II, including Chero­kee (Euro­pean and Pacif­ic thea­ters), Choc­taw (Euro­pean Thea­ter), Lakota, Mes­kwaki (North African Thea­ter), and Coman­che (Euro­pean Theater) speakers. The Marines employed Basque speakers whose lan­guage is spoken in North Central Spain and South­western France for code talking in areas where other Basque speakers were not expected to be operating (Hawaii and Australia).

Right: Native American women as Marine Corps Reservists at Camp Lejeune, North Caro­lina, Octo­ber 16, 1943. The three women represent the Black­feet, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe nations.

Cherokee Native American with Japanese flag, New Guinea, April 1, 1943Pima Native American Ira Hayes at paratroop school near San Diego, California, 1943

Left: Lt. Woody J. Cochran holds a Japanese flag, New Guinea, April 1, 1943. A Chero­kee from Okla­homa and a bomber pilot, Coch­ran earned the Silver Star, Purple Heart, Distin­guished Flying Cross, and Air Medal.

Right: Cpl. Ira Hayes was a Pima Native Amer­i­can from Cen­tral Ari­zona. At age 19, he is shown in this photo at the Marine Corps Para­troop School at Camp Gillespie near San Diego, Cali­for­nia, in 1943. Hayes fought in the Paci­fic Theater and is best known for helping raise an Amer­i­can flag and flag­staff over Mount Suri­bachi on Iwo Jima on Febru­ary 23, 1945, an event famously photographed by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press.

President George W. Bush Honors 29 Original Navajo Code Talkers, July 26, 2001, in Washington, D.C.