Defending the Homeland: Native American Service in WW2

Native Americans served in large numbers during World War II, with much of the Native American population serving in capacities from code talkers to liberators.

Jun 15, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor
defending the homeland native american contributions to ww2
Corporal Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Native American Marine, was one of the six servicemen to raise the American flag over Iwo Jima in 1945, via The National Archives


Many Native Americans volunteered for service in World War II and were included with white Americans in the military draft. As many as 25,000 Native Americans served during World War II. Native Americans were integrated into the typically segregated military, and the war provided opportunities for learning trades and skills they would not have had access to on reservations. Many Native Americans hoped that their service in the US military would open avenues for their economic and social mobility.


One of the most influential groups to serve in World War II was the Navajo Code Talkers, a group of Navajo servicemen who could relay indecipherable messages. However, the code talkers were not the only Native Americans who served. This article will discuss the code talkers, women in the war, the 45th Infantry Division, and Native American legacies and awards after their service.


Code Talkers: Navajo & Otherwise

navajo code talkers
Navajo Code Talkers Corporal Henry Bahe Jr. and Private First Class George H. Kirk. Bougainville in 1943, via the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC


Code Talkers were integral to the war effort during World War II. Code Talkers from the European, Pacific, and North African theaters sent messages by telephone, wire, and radio, often carrying all of their equipment on their backs. These special operatives allowed for major orders to be dispersed without detection and gave direction to smaller platoons.


The Navajo (Diné) Nation is the most famous group of Code Talkers from the Second World War. The Navajo Code Talkers were recruited by the United States Marine Corps, with the network growing to almost 400 members between 1941 and 1942. The Code Talkers developed and memorized codes based on their language. These codes were categorized into Type One Codes, the complex; and type Two Codes, the simpler version.


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Type Two Codes simply translated English messages into the Navajo language. Type One Code was developed by assigning a word to each letter of the English alphabet, then translating those words into Navajo and using them to send a message. The Navajos had to memorize each word, so they used words they were familiar with, like the names of animals. They also had to develop codenames for military terms (planes, weapons, ships, etc.). For this task, the Code Talkers were given pictures of the different objects, and they developed names for them in Navajo based on what the pictures looked like.


indian code talkers
Indian Code Talkers by Wayne Cooper, via the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC


After the codes were developed, the Navajo Code Talkers in the Pacific used them on the battlefield. These messages were the difference between wins and losses and the number of casualties. Their code was the only one that remained uncracked throughout the war.


However, the Navajos were not the only Code Talkers in the war. There were more than 20 languages translated into code during World War II, and many more tribes were recruited by the United States Army to serve in battles in Europe and North Africa. Specifically, the Comanche, Meskwaki, Chippewa, Oneida, Hopi, and Choctaw peoples were recruited for service.


In Europe, the Comanche used code to help destroy the Nazis in several major campaigns, including the D-Day Invasion. The Meskwaki people served against the Germans in many significant battles on the North African front. Choctaw Code Talkers used a specific term, posah-tai-vo, which means “crazy white man,” to refer to Adolph Hitler.


Women in the War: In Battle & At Home

marine corps women reservists
Marine Corps Women Reservists Minnie Spotted Wolf (Blackfoot), Celia Mix (Potawatomi), and Viola Eastman (Chippewa), via the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC


Approximately 800 Native American women joined the armed forces in World War II. They were accepted into the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVEs), a naval reserve. Women performed as recruiters and nurses, among other jobs, and their service opened new avenues to work and service that they had never experienced.


Women joined the military for many of the same reasons that men did: to escape poverty, to fight for their homelands, and for patriotism. They did so in military capacities but also on the homefront. As many as one in four Native American women worked in assembly lines and manufacturing. They were welders, machine workers, and aircraft manufacturers and handled many other jobs required in defense plants. Native American women confined to reservations took up the work that men in the military had left behind. They worked in sawmills, drove trucks, and took up security details.


grace thorpe general macarthur headquarters
Grace Thorpe working in General MacArthur’s headquarters, via the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC


In the military, one of the most famous Native American women to serve was Grace Thorpe, the daughter of Olympic and professional athlete Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was of Potowatami, Kickapoo, and Menominee descent and was a direct descendant through her father to the Sac and Fox chief Black Hawk, namesake of the Black Hawk War of 1832, spurred by a dispute concerning the cessation of tribal lands. Thorpe first joined the war effort as an auto assembly line worker at a Ford plant in Michigan but soon enrolled in the WAC. She then became a recruiter for the WAC, traveling from the United States to New Guinea in the Philippines.


Corporal Thorpe can serve as a symbol of the work that Native American women did for their country on the homefront and the battleground. Thorpe earned a Bronze Star for her service in the Battle of New Guinea. She stayed in Asia after the war, working in General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Japan as chief of the Department of Army Civilians Recruitment Section. Eventually, she served as Legislative Assistant with the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs and as a Task Force Program and Planning Analyst for the American Indian Policy Review Commission. She lived the rest of her life in service to Native American rights.


Liberators: The 45th Infantry Division

45th division soldier
45th Infantryman Dave Cummings (Muscogee-Creek), via The National World War II Museum, New Orleans


The 45th Infantry Division was formed in 1924 and comprised units of the National Guard from states such as Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Many of the men from these units were Native American, as they came from states with higher Native populations than the rest of the country. The 45th reflected their large percentage of Native American soldiers with their nickname, “The Thunderbirds,” and their unique insignia, a symbol of the Thunderbird of Native American lore. As the Division grew, so did the number of Native Americans who served with it. In 1940, the 45th was sent to New England for training, where they unfortunately faced much racism.


The 45th began performing ceremonial songs and dances for schools, churches, USOs, and other civic groups to combat the adverse reaction they received from many civilians in the Northeast. Donned in their full ceremonial regalia, the 45th helped to combat racism against Native Americans during their military training until they were deployed overseas. By the time they left the United States, the 45th had performed for over 400,000 people. However, their cultural popularity could not negate the need for their help in Europe. In July 1943, the 45th landed in Sicily and began their campaign through Europe.


During the Sicilian campaign, the 45th fought under General George Patton’s 7th Army. Patton later recognized the division as “one of the best, if not the best, division in the history of American arms.” They fought through Sicily, Italy, and France and finally arrived in Germany in March 1945. On April 20th, they captured Nuremberg, and on April 30th, Munich. In between these occupations, the 45th Division, the 42nd Infantry Division, and the 20th Armored Division converged in Dachau under orders to liberate the Dachau Concentration Camp.


45th infantry insignia thunderbird
The Thunderbird insignia of the 45th Infantry Division, via Wikimedia Commons


When the 45th arrived at the camp, what lay before them was a camp of 30,000 prisoners, emaciated, sick, and dying. Lieutenant Colonel Felix Sparks described the scene that lay before him when the 45th came upon the scene and entered the camp:


“The scene near the entrance to the confinement area numbed my senses. Dante’s Inferno seemed pale compared to the real hell of Dachau. A row of small cement structures near the prison entrance contained a coal-fired crematorium, a gas chamber, and rooms piled high with naked and emaciated human corpses. As I turned to look over the prison yard with unbelieving eyes, I saw a large number of dead inmates lying where they had fallen in the last few hours or days before our arrival. Since all the many bodies were in various stages of decomposition, the stench of death was overpowering.”


The United States Armed Forces that liberated Dachau began to provide medical and sanitary care to the former prisoners while also bringing in tons of food, hoping to feed all starving inmates. The 45th Division was officially recognized as a Liberating Unit by the US Army’s Center for Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1985. A plaque inside Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial’s gatehouse also commemorates their efforts.


Native American Servicemembers: Legacies & Honors

code talkers recognition bush
President George W. Bush presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to four of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, via The National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC


The Second World War represented a turning point in the history of Native Americans. Over 150,000 people from tribes all over the country either served in the military or supported the war effort with agricultural and manufacturing jobs. This helped to destroy not only the boundaries between Native people and white Americans but also the physical barriers. Many Native Americans moved off of reservations, and many veterans took advantage of the GI Bill, which allowed them to become doctors, lawyers, politicians, and activists in a way that had never been accessible before. Native Americans still faced challenges, such as voting and banking discrimination. In addition, the Navajo Code Talkers were forced into silence about their work and were not recognized officially until 2001.


ernest childers medal of honor
Ernest Childers, of the 45th Infantry Division’s 180th Regiment, receiving his Medal of Honor, via The National World War II Museum, Washington DC


However, Native American veterans received many honors for their service in the military. Three of the 45th Division’s eight Medal of Honor recipients were Native American: Ernest Childers, Jack Montgomery, and Van T. Barfoot were recognized for their actions campaigning through Italy. Not counting Purple Heart, over 200 Native Americans were given military awards. These included Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, Good Conduct Medals, and Combat Infantry Badges.


While the United States celebrated them, Native veterans were also honored by their communities, participating in rituals and ceremonies for their bravery and to help them heal from their emotional and physical wounds. Native Americans did much to serve the United States in World War II, though they are often forgotten. They fought valiantly, and for that, they should be celebrated.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.