Native Americans and World War II

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Native Americans and World War II

General douglas macarthur meets american indian troops wwii military pacific navajo pima island hopping.JPG General Douglas MacArthur meeting Navajo, O'odham, Pawnee and other native troops on December 31, 1943.


World War II

Navajo code talkers during the Battle of Saipan in 1944.

As many as 25,000 Native Americans actively fought in World War II: 21,767 in the Army, 1,910 in the Navy, 874 in the Marines, 121 in the Coast Guard, and several hundred Native American women as nurses. These figures represent over one-third of able-bodied Native American men aged 18–50, and even included as high as seventy percent of the population of some tribes. Unlike African Americans, Native Americans did not serve in segregated units and served alongside white Americans [1]

Alison R. Burnstein argues that World War II presented the first large-scale exodus of Native Americans from reservations since the reservation system began, and presented an opportunity for many Native Americans to leave reservations and enter the “white world.” For many soldiers, World War II represented the first interracial contact between natives living on relatively isolated reservations and whites [2]


According to Burnstein, life on reservations was difficult for Native Americans prior to the war due to low levels of development and lack of economic opportunities. In 1939, the median income for Native American males living on reservations was $500, compared to the national average for males of $2300.[3] Nearly one quarter of Native Americans at this time had no formal education, and even for high school graduates, few forms of conventional employment existed on reservations.[4] In the absence of conventional employment, those Native Americans who stayed on the reservations generally worked the land and farmed.[5]

Although Native Americans were not drafted for World War I because they were not considered citizens of the United States as of 1917, approximately 10,000 Native American men volunteered for duty in World War I.[6]

Native American men were included along with whites in the World War II draft. Initial reactions by Native Americans to the draft were mixed. While some were eager to join the military, others resisted. Burnstein argues that due to their still questionable status as citizens of the United States at the outbreak of the second world war, many Native Americans questioned volunteering for military service, as “the Federal government had the power to force Indians to serve in the military but did not have the power to compel Mississippi to grant Indians the vote”.[7] Although some resisted the draft, many others who were not drafted volunteered for the war.

Native Service in the War[edit]

Whether it was due to innate skill as warriors or merely as a reflection of the stereotype of the Native American warrior spirit perpetuated by American popular culture, Native American men were generally regarded highly for their military service in World War II.

Native Americans first saw action in the Pacific Theater along with the rest of the American army and navy. The first known Native American casualty of war was a young Oklahoma man who died during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.[8] Over the course of the war, Native American men fought across the world on all fronts, and were involved in many of the most critical battles involving American troops, including Iwo Jima (which was the site of Ira Hayes' triumphant moment in the famous photograph of Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima with four of his fellow Marines and a Navy corpsman), the Invasion of Normandy, the Liberation of the Philippines, the Battle of the Bulge, the Liberation of Paris, and the Liberation of Belgium. Native Americans were also among the first Americans to enter Germany and played a role in the Liberation of Berlin.[9] Casualty reports showed Native Americans fighting as far away as Australia, North Africa, and Bataan.[10]

One of the most significant benefits that Native American men and women reaped from the war effort was the expectation that new skills would lead to better jobs. Due to both the waning sense of isolation on reservations brought on by the war and the influx of money, Native Americans began to have access to consumer goods and outside services. The average Native American income increased to $2,500 by 1944, 2.5 times greater than in 1940. However, the average salary of a Native American was still only a quarter of the average salary of a white American.[11]

More than 30 Native Americans were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the third-highest aviation honor.[12] Not counting the Purple Heart, more than two hundred military awards were given to Native American soldiers.[13] Although many Native Americans received recognition for their military service in terms of awards, these awards were later used during the termination period by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as proof that Native Americans were eager to assimilate into American culture.

Navajo Code Talkers Project[edit]

In February 1942, a white civilian named Philip Johnston came up with the idea of using the Navajo language as military code. Johnston, a missionaries' son, grew up on a reservation and understood the complexity of the Navajo language. By September 1942, the American government had recruited several hundred Native Americans who spoke both Navajo and English to translate English words into the Navajo language to avoid enemy interception. Often working behind enemy lines, the code talkers were commended for their bravery and gained respect from fellow soldiers.[14] Until its declassification in 1968, the code that these Navajo developed remains the only oral military code to never have been broken by an enemy.[15]

The code itself was composed of carefully selected Navajo words that used poetic circumlocution so that even a Navajo speaker would not be able to understand the commands without proper training. For example, there was no word in the Navajo language for military machines, weapons, or foreign countries, so these words were substituted with words that did exist in the Navajo language. For example, Britain was spoken as "between waters" (toh-ta), a dive bomber was a "chicken hawk" (gini), a grenade was a "potato" (ni-ma-si) and Germany was "iron hat" (besh-be-cha-he).[15]

In 2001, the 28 members of the Navajo Code Breakers were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, mostly posthumously. The group has also been commemorated in various media, including books, films, notably Windtalkers (2002) starring Nicolas Cage, and even a Navajo Code Talker GI Joe action figure.[15]

Post War[edit]

The war's aftermath, says Allison Bernstein, marked a "new era in Indian affairs" and turned "American Indians" into "Indian Americans."[16]

Upon returning to America after the war, some Native American soldiers suffered from PTSD and unemployment. Following the war, many Native Americans found themselves living in cities rather than on reservations. In 1940, only 5 percent of Native Americans lived in cities. By 1950, this number had ballooned to nearly 20 percent of Native Americans living in urban areas off of reservations.[17]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Burnstein, Alison R. Walking In Two Worlds: American Indians In World War Two, Diss. Columbia University, 1986. University Microfilms International. Web. 26 April 2015. 65.
  2. ^ Burnstein, Alison R. Walking In Two Worlds: American Indians In World War Two, Diss. Columbia University, 1986. University Microfilms International. Web. 26 April 2015. 67
  3. ^ Burnstein, 24
  4. ^ Burnstein, 25
  5. ^ Burnstein 26
  6. ^ Burnstein, 33
  7. ^ Burnstein 38
  8. ^ Burnstein 78
  9. ^ Burnstein 92
  10. ^ Burnstein 104
  11. ^ Burnstein 100
  12. ^ Burnstein 88
  13. ^ Burnstein 103
  14. ^ Burnstein 83
  15. ^ a b c Fox, Margalit. "Chester Nez, 93, Dies; Navajo Words Washed From Mouth Helped Win War" The New York Times. 5 June 2014. Web. 26 April 2015.
  16. ^ Bernstein, American Indians and World War Two: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs p 159
  17. ^ Burnstein 153

Further reading[edit]

  • Bernstein, Alison R. American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs (1999)

External links[edit]