Much More Than Code Talking – The Role of Native Americans in World War II

General Douglas MacArthur, on an inspection trip of American battle fronts, met representatives of five different American Indian tribes in one United States Army unit.

Native Americans made an enormous contribution to the World War II effort. Sadly, their involvement in the conflict is widely overlooked. Sometimes, they are portrayed as codebreakers and nothing more. This is not the case. Native Americans played a huge role in the war from its beginning to its end.

From the time the Europeans began settling in the New World, the population of the Native Americans began decreasing at an alarmingly rapid rate. The group’s population was seeing a little bit of a rise during the beginning of the 21st century. However, another large chunk of this growing population would fall prey to another harsh time of the Western world – World War II. In fact, 44,000 Native American individuals participated in the war.

This represented more than ten percent of their entire population. While they played a huge role and many won medals for their service and bravery, their stories are quite often forgotten.

A Show of Loyalty

Lieutenant Ernest Childers, a Muscogee, being congratulated by General Jacob L. Devers shortly after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1944.
Lieutenant Ernest Childers, a Muscogee, being congratulated by General Jacob L. Devers shortly after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1944.

Many Native Americans voluntarily joined the war effort after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Unknown to many, the Iroquois Confederacy had long held a grudge against the country of Germany. They jumped at the chance to fight the oppressive Nazis. They were willing to overlook the past conflicts with the American government. Instead, they would fight alongside white men to defeat a greater evil in what they called the white man’s war.

Their participation was greatly appreciated and was seen as a tremendous show of loyalty and cooperation. Even the most typically standoffish and reclusive tribes sent men to represent them in the war. There was no need to be drafted. In fact, many tribes saw it as disrespectful and shameful to even need to be drafted. They thought their warriors should be compelled to participate of their own free will. By 1945, ninety-nine percent of all draft eligible Native Americans had registered.

By the time the war ended, 44,000 had participated. Men were not the only Native Americans to serve, though. Native American women also contributed through participation as nurses and other areas open to women at the time.

Coding Skills

Navajo code talker delivering a message.
A Navajo Code Talker relays a message on a field radio. The code talkers served in the South Pacific during World War II and were kept a secret until 1968 when the Navajo code was finally declassified.

Of course, one of the most well-known ways Native Americans contributed during the war were with their coding skills, though they did so much more. Apparently, German agents were unable to decode the Choctaw language during World War I, and this was a huge concern for them going into World War II. To prepare for a second war, Nazi Germany sent spies into reservations posing as writers and scholars to attempt to learn the languages.

However, despite these efforts, the Native Americans were must more apt at learning English, than the Germans were at learning Native American languages. In addition to learning advanced English skills, the Native Americans also, through their participation and armed forces enrollment, studied new job skills and other cultures. Some were leaving their reservations for the very first time.

It also helped that the U.S. forces decided to recruit a separate tribe for coding messages this time around, with Navajo Indians and a few other tribes replacing the Choctaws of World War I. The Navajo codes were equally confusing to the Japanese as they were the Germans.

Marine Corps Involvement

Navajo troops during the Battle of Saipan,1944. Photo via Wikipedia
Navajo troops during the Battle of Saipan,1944.

Native American soldiers were very welcome among the Marine Corps. These hardened soldiers respected the Native Americans’ tenacity and courage. It was here the Navajos first started working in coding. They even invented their own words for common military and naval terms. By the end of the war, more than 400 Navajo People served in this way.

As well as their coding skills, many were also excellent in hand-to-hand combat, shooting and had excellent endurance, much more so than the average American soldier. Many fought in the Pacific and central Europe, where these skills were necessary, but also as far away as Australia.

The War Effort at Home

Even on the reservations, Native Americans supported the war effort the best they could. A large percentage bought treasury stamps and war bonds, and also made donations to the Red Cross. In fact, it’s estimated Native Americans bought approximately $50 million in war bonds. Those who were unable to enlist also helped in constructing depots needed for the troops, including the Naval Supply Depot in Utah.

Just as American women took on men’s roles in factories and at home, Native American women learned to act as everything from mechanics to farmers to factory workers. When not working to support their men on the front lines, they were volunteering by sewing uniforms and other needed supplies and canning food to be shipped to troops.

Negative Aspects

Lieutenant Woody J. Cochran, a Cherokee Indian and bomber pilot, holding up a captured Japanese flag and Nambu pistol during the New Guinea campaign on April 1, 1943.
Lieutenant Woody J. Cochran, a Cherokee Indian and bomber pilot, holding up a captured Japanese flag and Nambu pistol during the New Guinea campaign on April 1, 1943.

However, despite the many positive aspects of Native American participation in World War II, there were still quite a few very negative aspects. This includes Native American land being taken within the United States to be used for prisoner of war camps and other military operations.

There was also a shortage of medical care as many qualified in-reservation doctors and nurses joined the war effort. Government funds going towards Indian reservations were also rerouted for military purposes.

After The War

After the war, many of these Native Americans, who had before never left their reservations, instead of returning to their old ways of life, enjoyed joining white culture. However, they did not feel that this was a rejection of their own culture, but rather a necessary adaption for success. Many, through their skills learned in the armed forces, saw a better possibility for finding off-reservation jobs.

This led to a rise in the average Native American annual income, though this income was still smaller than the average income for a typical white male in the United States during this time. They also received the usual veteran benefits such as weekly unemployment checks, GI Bill benefits, lower mortgages and free educational opportunities.

Quite a few moved to urban areas, particularly in California and New York City, as well as major Midwestern cities such as Chicago and Denver.

Some thrived, while others suffered from the typical aftermath of war, including homelessness and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lincoln Riddle

Lincoln Riddle is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE