WASHINGTON -- U.S. military commanders had a big problem during World War II, when the Japanese routinely broke their codes, making it easy to predict the actions of American troops.
Commanders brought in 29 Navajo "code talkers" -- a group made up of farmers and sheepherders from the ages of 15 to 35 -- who went to Camp Pendleton in California in 1942 and used their language to create a code that the enemy could never figure out: Turtle meant tank, chicken hawk meant dive bomber and Wo-La-Chee represented the letter "A."
Overall, the U.S. military relied on 33 tribes to aid its efforts during World Wars I and II, beginning in 1918. U.S. officials say the code talkers saved thousands of lives along the way.
On Wednesday, Congress awarded the tribes with gold medals, the body's highest civilian honor, citing the dedication and valor of their members. Individual awards went to more than 200 code talkers and their families.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the code talkers showed "what it takes to be the bravest of the brave" and that they joined a long line of Congressional Gold Medal recipients, including George Washington, the very first, in 1776.
"Heroes who for too long went unrecognized will now be given our highest recognition," Mr. Boehner said.
At Camp Pendleton, the secret code began with 200 terms and grew to more than 600 by the end of the war.
Code words never were written down and had to be memorized by the participants, who were sworn to secrecy for the rest of their lives.
"It worked perfectly," said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. "It wasn't deciphered. It wasn't decoded."
William "Ozzie" Sheakley, who accepted a gold medal on behalf of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said the Tlingit tribe had five code talkers, including his late uncle. All of them are deceased.
To the day his uncle, Richard Bean Sr., died, he'd never discuss his role as a code talker, said Mr. Sheakley, who's 64.
"He took his job seriously," Mr. Sheakley said in an interview.
The public didn't learn of the code-talker programs until the government declassified them 23 years after the end of World War II.
Many of the tribal members had received awards in 2001, but Congress wanted to make sure that all the participants got medals, and it passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act in 2008.
Tribes from Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin were among those awarded medals.
Mr. Sheakley, of Juneau, Alaska, designed the medal given to the Tlingit tribe. One side depicts a kneeling soldier holding a radio, while the other features one of the tribe's ceremonial killer-whale hats. "I've been working on this for 41/2 years," he said. "It took me a long time to design the medal."
During the hourlong ceremony in Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol, members of Congress said the medals would help immortalize the wartime contributions of the nation's tribes.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the Chickasaw Nation, compared the code talkers to Japanese-Americans and African-Americans during World II, saying they "often were barred from full participation in American life" but still served the nation "with pride, with patriotism, with honor, with sacrifice."
"They saved lives and they won battles, and they did so by giving the United States a unique battlefield advantage: secure communication," Mr. Cole said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted the irony of having U.S. government officials turn to Native Americans for help during times of war, using languages that the government had first tried to eradicate. He called it "the perfect secret weapon" for the military.
In an interview, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, recalled how tribal members in her state were sent to boarding schools and punished for speaking their language. "Here you've got your government that's yanking you out of your homeland and uprooting you from your culture, and your commitment to serve your country was still paramount," said Ms. Murkowski, adding that the ceremony made her "feel proud as an Alaskan, to see this incredible recognition conveyed."
In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the recognition "historic and overdue," adding that Native Americans have served in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, in disproportionately high numbers.
"No group of Americans has a higher per-capita service rate in the military than Native Americans," Mr. Leahy said, calling their role in U.S. history "both proud and painful."