By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Pearl Harbor had been attacked in 1941 and America was deeply involved in WWII. The situation back home had brought not only challenges, but also immense opportunities for the American Indians. They participated in America’s war effort by buying war bonds and getting employment in war industries. Let’s take a look at some of their contributions, including those of the famous Navajo code talkers.
Employment Opportunities for American Indians
With the beginning of the war, many Natives left reservation homes to seek opportunities in airplane factories, ordnance depots, shipyards, railroads, gold and copper mines, sawmills, and canneries in cities such as Los Angeles, Tulsa, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, and Albuquerque. Indeed, some 40,000 American Indians sought opportunities in the war industries, including an estimated 12,000 women by 1943.
Native women across the United States also found work in factories as riveters and inspectors, as teachers in schools, as agricultural laborers, as administrators in the Indian Service, and as truck drivers hauling freight.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
An Issue of National Identity
As had happened during World War I, American Indians sometimes resisted the draft. By 1924, universal citizenship had been extended to American Indians. But many Native people didn’t want citizenship. And so when the Selective Training and Service Act was passed in September 1940, some citizens of tribal nations challenged its legitimacy.
A leader of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, for instance, argued that it made no sense for Choctaws to fight for a country that denied Choctaws the right to vote. After all, they lived in a South that deprived all colored people the basic dignities of citizenship. Some Utes pointed to a long history of dispossession and very reasonably asked why they should be compelled to defend a country that had done such harm to them. And Hopis opposed compulsory service on religious grounds. The Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy took the United States to court over the draft.
Learn more about why American Indians fought in WWI.
American Indians in the Armed Forces
Despite such acts of resistance, by war’s end about 44,000 Native Americans had served in the U.S. armed forces. Meanwhile, large numbers of American Indian women volunteered. Approximately 800 Native women enlisted in auxiliary branches, such as the Women’s Army Corps.
Native men also took to the air as fighter pilots, gunners, and bombardiers. This included the 45th Infantry Division—the Thunderbird Division. In June 1943, they headed to North Africa and proceeded to see 511 days of combat, which included landings in Sicily and Anzio and fighting in southern France and in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. Three Native men from the 45th won the Medal of Honor, 12 received the Purple Heart posthumously.
Tim Touchin, a Navajo who won the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross as a gunner in the 8th Air Force in Europe, was one of the war’s casualties. Clarence Tinker, an Osage from Oklahoma, became the first American Indian to rise to the rank of major general. He commanded the 7th Air Force in Hawaii and lost his life in June 1942 during the Battle of Midway.
Ultimately, the war claimed the lives of more than 550 Native men.
Code Talkers of WWII
The American Indians who ultimately emerged most visibly from the war—although their work remained classified until 1968—were the Navajo code talkers. In the spring of 1942, 29 Navajo men were recruited to devise a way to send and receive coded messages during combat.
The technique for creating it was unique. The process included first developing a list of words in English that would need to be used, then the Navajo men had to associate a Navajo word that they wanted to use to describe them. So, for bomber, they came up with buzzard. For observation plane, they decided upon owl. For dive-bomber, they opted for chicken hawk. As a fighter plane, they used hummingbird. The list went on as battleships became whales, submarines became iron fishes, destroyers became sharks, and tanks were transformed into turtles.
It gets even more fascinating when we look at some other concepts that also served as windows into Navajo values and worldview. Consider that the word for corps that they settled on was clan. Perhaps most significantly, America was translated as ‘our mother’.
Learn more about how the Americans intercepted Japanese codes in Hawaii.
Navajo Code Talkers Prove Useful in the Pacific
In time, the code expanded considerably, and 400 Navajos would join the code talkers, serving in all six Marine divisions.
In the fall of 1942, the initial 200-word Navajo codebook had been completed, and the first group of Navajo code talkers was dispatched for combat in the Pacific. Their first test came in October and November 1942 at Guadalcanal with the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions.
Chester Nez considered November 4, 1942, to be the most terrifying day of his life. Early that morning, he and his fellow Marines were to land at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Two assault waves disembarked in their Higgins boats before it was his and the other 1st Marine code talkers’ turn. Nez waded through chest-deep water, past the floating dead bodies of American and Japanese soldiers, and onto the bloodstained beach. To get there, he had to violate Navajo taboos against coming into contact with the dead. Eventually, he and his fellow radio operator set up along a tree line to begin transmitting coded messages.
In time, the code proved central to the entire Pacific campaign in a variety of contexts. During the first 48 hours after landing at Iwo Jima in February 1945, for instance, code talkers sent and received over 800 messages without error. And Navajo wasn’t the only indigenous language to be used for code talking during World War II. Comanche, Hopi, and Meskwaki were also used; as were, to lesser degrees, Canadian Cree, Cherokee, Ojibwe, Choctaw, Kiowa, Menominee, Muskogee, Pawnee, Lakota, Dakota, and Yanktonai.
Common Questions about the American Indian Code Talkers of WWII
By the war’s end, about 44,000 Native Americans had served in the US armed forces.
The process included first developing a list of words in English that would need to be used, then the Navajo men had to associate a Navajo word that they wanted to use to describe them.
Clarence Tinker was an Osage from Oklahoma who became the first American Indian to rise to the rank of major general. He commanded the 7th Air Force in Hawaii and lost his life in June 1942 during the Battle of Midway.