Who Are the Navajo Code Talkers? Trump Insults World War II Heroes With 'Pocahontas' Joke

President Donald Trump drew widespread outrage on Monday when he inserted what many felt was a racial slur into a ceremony at the White House meant to honor the Navajo Code Talkers, Native American war heroes who played a vital role in America's victory in World War II. The reaction was prompted by Trump once again taking a jab at Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren by referring to her as Pocahontas. 

"You were here long before any of us were here," Trump said to the World War II veterans, "Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas." The White House quickly defended Trump's comments, stating it was not the president's intention to make a "racial slur."

Many, though, were upset about Trump's statements, including Warren, who said, "It is deeply unfortunate that the president of the united States cannot even make it through a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur."

Regardless of how one views Trump's comments, they arguably distracted from the overall purpose of Monday's event, and some might be left wondering just who were the Navajo Code Talkers

During World War II, the U.S. military needed to find a way to rapidly transmit sensitive information over the radio or telephone without it being deciphered by the enemy. In 1942, a man named Philip Johnston suggested to the U.S. Marine Corps that it use the Navajo language as a solution. Johnston, a World War I veteran who was the son of missionaries and had grown up on a Navajo reservation, was fluent in the Navajo language.

Like most Native American languages, Navajo has no alphabet and there was no written materials for the enemy to use to attempt to work out what was being said in the language. Accordingly, the Marines decided to give Johnston's idea a shot and recruited 29 Navajos for a pilot program. The Marines worked with the recruits to come up with words for certain military terminology, developing an indecipherable code. Ultimately, around 400 Navajos participated in the code talker program. Native Americans from other tribes—including the Hopi, Comanches and Meskwakis—also served as code talkers during the war. 

11_27_Navajo_Code_Talkers After they were first established in May 1942, the Navajo Code Talkers were present in every major operation involving the Marines in the Pacific theater until the end of the war. Getty Images

After being established in May 1942, the Navajo Code Talkers were present in every major operation involving the Marines in the Pacific theater until the end of the war. During the invasion of Iwo Jima, six continuously operating Navajo code talkers sent more than 800 messages that were transmitted without error. According to Major Howard Connor, who commanded the code talkers during the battle: "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

The accomplishments and bravery of the Navajo Code Talkers was kept secret for many years after the war, until the operation was declassified in 1968. In 1982, President Ronald Regan declared August 14—the day the Japanese surrendered—Navajo Code Talkers day. In 2001, the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers received for their service Congressional Gold Medals, the highest honor Congress can award. 

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