A room full of adults got a hands-on lesson last week in deciphering and sending coded messages, getting a sense of what it was like to be a World War II code talker.
About 50 people attended the 2 p.m. IKEducation D-Day program last Thursday in the Visitor’s Center of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. It was one of three sessions about the code talkers presented that day by instructor Ben Ines, a retired Abilene Middle School social studies teacher.
“When I do the presentation today I’m doing it how I do it for the kids, then I’ll step out and explain a couple things,” Ines said.
IKEducation provides kindergarten through 12th grade students various learning opportunities that “ultimately enhance their knowledge of Dwight D. Eisenhower, passing along his life, times and story to a new generation,” Ines told the audience.
More than 35,000 kids and adults have participated in IKEducation since it was created in 2013, he said.
“I want you to imagine a world, 75 years ago or further, when you have a world at war, two sides battling one another for control. On one side you have the Allied powers — including the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. On the other side, you have the Axis powers — Germany, Italy, Japan,” Ines said.
“Each one of these countries have information they wanted to share with each other and at the same time they’re trying to get access to information the other side had and steal their secrets. All sides developed certain programs to keep their programs, information and secrets hidden from the other side,” he added.
Code talkers were Native American men who served in the U.S. Military and created a code using their native languages that was never broken, even after the end of the war.
A video featuring Peter McDonald, one of 29 original Navajo code talkers, explained that early in the war the enemy was “breaking every military code being used in the Pacific,” but eventually the suggestion was made to use the Navajo language as the code.
Because the men were going to fight the enemy, they had to be soldiers first which meant going through boot camp, combat training and the Marine Corp communication school.
“Then you were separated from all the marines and taken to a top secret location east of San Diego, Camp Elliott,” McDonald related. “That’s where they created a military code to be used in the Pacific.”
The first test was on the beaches of Guadalcanal when some Navajo code talkers were sent into battle to see “how our memory would be under heavy enemy fire,” McDonald says in the video. One of the commanding generals said, “This Navajo code is terrific. The enemy never understood it. We don’t understand it either. Send us some more Navajo,” McDonald recalled in the video.
While the Navajo code talkers — the most famous of the coders — were used primarily in the Pacific Theatre, other tribes like the Meswaki and Comanche were used in Europe, but not as extensively.
“There’s a reason why, but most people don’t know this,” Ines told the local audience.
In the 1930s before German leader Adolph Hitler began his war of aggression, German anthropologists and others were sent to study United States languages “in the chance possibility they could be used in some type of code system,” Ines explained. “The actual idea of code talkers dates back to World War I so part of the reason they (code talkers) weren’t used as extensively in the European Theatre is because of that fear.”
Ines explained how the coding system worked and how the English alphabet was coded into Navajo.
“What they actually did, they assigned three English words to one letter because it’s harder to break,” he said. “Keep in mind too, they would have to memorize all that because you’re not taking the code book into the field. If they lose it and others find it, then your code is worth nothing.”
Since the Navajo and other Native American languages didn’t have words for some military terms, images of some commonplace things were used.
“They don’t have words in their language for things like ‘battleship’ and ‘plane,’ so they had to figure out something they can use to make it relatable,” Ines said.
There’s no Navajo or Comanche word for tank, but a turtle at full sprint resembles a tank, a whale resembles a warship and a small maneuverable fighter plane resembles a hummingbird.
The adults attending Thursday then had several missions to accomplish, including encoding and decoding a message before “debriefing” the general.
Contact Kathy Hageman at firstname.lastname@example.org.