The relationship between the United States and the indigenous people of North America is a complicated one that dates back centuries. At one of the nation’s darkest hours, the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Native Americans didn’t hesitate to join the US military and take part in the war that followed. An estimated 25,000 Native Americans served in World War II, with members in each branch of the military, including women working as nurses. By the time the war ended, more than one third of Native American men aged 18-50 had joined the service.
Before the War
Prior to the war, conditions for Native Americans were difficult. Education was often substandard, and economic and infrastructure development on the reservations lagged behind that in the surrounding communities. In 1939, the average income for Native American males topped out at $500, which was about $1,700 less than the national average.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the role of Native American men changed drastically. Though they weren’t subject to the military draft during the First World War, things were different two decades later. While reaction was mixed, many men who weren’t drafted decided to enlist voluntarily.
Native Americans in World War II
The first taste of war for Native American men came in the Pacific with the community’s first known casualty occurring at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack. Native American presence was seen at vital battles including Iwo Jima and the Philippines. In fact, Ira Hayes, a Marine from the Akimel O’odham community in Arizona, was one of the six flag-raisers in the iconic “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” image.
A Secret Weapon
Beyond participating in battle, however, Native Americans—specifically Navajo—played a unique role in the Second World War. Keeping secrets from the enemy is one of the most challenging aspects of war. The Allied success in cracking Japanese code led to an important victory at Midway. In February of 1942, in the early months of the War in the Pacific, a civilian named Philip Johnston devised an idea to use the Navajo language as military code. Having grown up among the Navajo, he knew the language and how complex it was. And when it came to war, the more complex the code, the better.
Within seven months, hundreds of bilingual Navajo speakers were recruited to translate English into their native language, transmitting information that couldn’t be understood by the Axis powers. The code-talkers had to get creative in many instances. Weapons, armament, and even foreign countries had no Navajo words, so the code-talkers came up with alternatives. Britain was referred to as “between waters” (toh-ta) and Germany became known as “iron hate” (besh-be-cha-he). Grenades were “potato” (ni-ma-si) and dive bombers were “chicken hawk” (gini).
Between the Navajo language’s complexity and the creativity displayed in its use for transmitting military information, this became the only oral military code to never be broken. In 2001, the Native American code-talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.