Code talkers are work during the war in 1943.
Private Preston Toledo of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his cousin, Private Frank Toledo of Penistaja, New Mexico, conduct their duties in Ballarat, Australia. with the 11th Marines in July 1943. (Photo: USMC Archives/Flickr)

Whether it's heart-racing accounts of major battles, complicated portraits of soldiers or narratives of the trials suffered by civilians in conflict zones, there are countless stories that could be told about the great wars of the 20th century.

One important story revolves around the legacy of the Native American code talkers and the pivotal role they played in battle.

Code talkers were wartime communications specialists who used their fluency in indigenous languages to transmit secret coded messages over telephone or radio from the battlefield.

Soldiers are accompanied by a Navajo code talker (seen with the walkie talkie) in June 1944.
Soldiers are accompanied by a Navajo code talker (seen with the walkie talkie) in June 1944. (Photo: PhotosNormandie/Flickr)

The Navajo language proved to be a particularly strong choice for secret tactical codes in World War II because very few people outside the tribe had learned to speak the language at that point. By reinforcing the mystery of this unfamiliar language with an additional alphabet cypher, it became virtually impenetrable. Despite efforts by the Japanese military, the code was never cracked.

Although the Navajo Code Talkers remain the most well-known wartime communication specialists of their kind, the U.S. military enlisted bilingual members of other tribes to perform similar linguistic duties in both world wars. These tribes include the Comanche (below), Seminole, Cherokee, Meskwaki, Choctaw and even people of Basque descent.

Comanche code talkers of the 4th Signal Company.
Comanche code talkers of the 4th Signal Company. (Photo: U.S. Army)

What's interesting about the U.S. government's scramble to assemble these elite linguistic teams is that, just a few decades earlier, there had been a concerted effort to stamp out these same indigenous languages.

Private Leslie Hemstreet of Crystal, New Mexico bangs on a makeshift drum in Okinawa.
Private Leslie Hemstreet of Crystal, New Mexico bangs on a makeshift drum in Okinawa. (Photo: USMC Archives/Flickr)

Starting in the late 19th century (and continuing well into the mid 20th century), American Indian boarding schools were established around the United States in an effort to assimilate and "civilize" the nation's indigenous population.

Many Native American children were forced to leave their families and tribes to attend these schools, which were designed to eliminate traditional Native American ways of life and replace them with elements of Euro-American culture. The schools achieved this through a variety of assimilation tactics, which included anglicizing the children's names, cutting their hair and making them give up their traditional clothing:

Before and after photo of young Chiricahua Apaches at the Carlisle Indian School.
Top: A group of young Chiricahua Apache upon their arrival at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania on Nov. 4, 1886. Bottom: A group of young Chiricahua Apaches pose for photo four months after arriving at the the Carlisle school. (Photo: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Yale University/Wikimedia)

In addition to altering their appearance, students were also forbidden from practicing their tribe's religions, participating in any of their tribal art forms (such as singing and dancing), straying from traditional Western gender roles and, of course, speaking their indigenous languages.

The irony was not lost on the code talkers years later.

As explained in the "Native Words, Native Warriors" exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, "many code talkers attended boarding schools. As adults, they found it puzzling that the same government that had tried to take away their languages in schools later gave them a critical role speaking their languages in military service."

An unidentified Navajo Code Talker relays a message on a field radio at the Pacific atoll of Tarawa in November 1943.
An unidentified Navajo Code Talker relays a message on a field radio at the Pacific atoll of Tarawa in November 1943. (Photo: USMC Archives/Flickr)

After the war ended, the code talkers were sworn to secrecy about the operation for many years — even their own families had no inkling of what they had done during the war. Only when the code was finally declassified by the military in 1968 did people begin to realize the vital importance of the soldiers' work.

Although it took more than a decade to make it happen, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed Aug. 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day in 1982.

President George W. Bush salutes the Navajo Code Talkers during a medal presentation ceremony
President George W. Bush salutes the Navajo Code Talkers during a medal presentation ceremony at the U. S. Capitol on July 26, 2001. (Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy/Flickr)

They received additional awards and commendations over the next several decades, but it wasn't until 2000 that the Navajo Code Talkers were finally honored with special gold and silver congressional medals.

The Navajo Code Talker Memorial in Window Rock, Arizona.
The Navajo Code Talker Memorial in Window Rock, Arizona. (Photo: John Fowler/Flickr)

Despite the historical injustices and belated recognition, the code talkers and their descendents are unwavering in their pride and celebration of their unique linguistic contribution to the war effort.

"We, the Navajo people, were very fortunate to contribute our language as a code for our country's victory," said Kee Etsicitty, a WWII veteran code talker who served in the 3rd Marine Division. "For this, I strongly recommend we teach our children the language our ancestors were blessed with at the beginning of time. It is very sacred and represents the power of life."

Continue below to see more archival photos of these distinguished soldiers:

Navajo and Comanche code talkers en route to Okinawa in 1945
Navajo and Comanche code talkers en route to Okinawa in 1945. (Left to right: Joe Hosteen Kelwood of Steamboat Canyon, Ganado, Arizona; Floyd Saupitty of Lawton, Oklahoma; and Alex Williams of Red Lake, Leupp, Arizona. (Photo: USMC Archives/Flickr)
Code talker Samuel Sandoval leans against an arch in Okinawa in 1945.
Code talker Samuel Sandoval, a member of the III Amphibious Corps Signal Battalion, leans against an arch in Okinawa in 1945. (Photo: USMC Archives/Flickr)
Code talkers who participated in the Bougainville operation in December 1943.
A group of code talkers who participated in the Bougainville operation in December 1943. (Photo: USMC Archives/Flickr)