The Navajo code talkers of World War II have received a lot of publicity and attention in recent years, (due in part to the recent MGM film WindTalkers) but what few people realize is that Native American speaking code talkers were actually first used towards the end of World War I where a group of Choctaw natives helped win several key battles in the Mousse-Argonne campaign, which was to be final big German push.
In 1917, the Choctaws were not citizens of the United States. The language the Choctaws spoke was considered obsolete. That same language later helped bring about a successful end to the first World War. Of more than 10,000 Native Americans serving in WWI, a number of Choctaw soldiers “confounded German eavesdroppers”.
When speaking of going into battle, you can be assured that communications are an important weapon. It can be used to defeat your enemy, or it can destroy you. During WWI, the Germans were able to decipher all of the allied forces coded communications. Then something almost miraculous happened. A group of 19 young Choctaw men appeared on the scene, using their own language to transmit messages that the Germans were never able to decipher.
Native Americans including Choctaws, were not allowed to vote until 1924 – although years before this they volunteered to fight for what they considered their country, land and people.
According to tribal documents, there were 19 Choctaw Code Talkers:
Tobias Frazier, Victor Brown, Joseph Oklahombi, Otis Leader, Ben Hampton, Albert Billy, Walter Veach, Ben Carterby, James Edwards, Solomon Louis, Peter Maytubby, Mitchell Bobb, Calvin Wilson, Jeff Nelson, Joseph Davenport, George Davenport, Noel Johnson, Schlicht Billy and Robert Taylor.
The men listed here were part of the 36th Division (“Choctaws”). Originally, only eight men were recognized as Choctaw Code Talkers, but as the success of using their native language as a “code” was recognized, others were quickly pressed into service.
Toward the end of the war, the Germans had tapped radio and telephone communications. Messengers were sent out from one company to another. These messengers had been dubbed runners. One out of four runners were captured by German troops. The Germans had decoded all transmitted messages up to this point in the war.
The Germans were unable to break this 'code' however and within 24 hours, the tide of the battle had turned, and within 72 hours, the Germans were in full retreat.
Sadly, although the battalion commander told the men he was putting them in for medals, the men never received any recognition from the army for their contributions. The last Choctaw code talker died in 1982. Still unrecognized.
Twenty five years later, America was embroiled in another World War. Again, it was a war with few secrets. Allied Intelligence had broken the German and Japanese communications codes. But the Japanese had also broken every code the Americans thought up. Many of the top Japanese code breakers had been educated in the United States and as such were aware of even local references and slang that the American forces tried to use to disguise their intentions.
Perhaps the Choctaw Code Talkers might have had some success again, but there had only been eight of them (recognised officially) in that test of World War I and they had long since been forgotten...or had they?
Seventeen Comanches were assigned to the Comanche Signal Corps of the Army and, like the Chocktaws before them, passed messages among themselves that could not be understood by the Germans. Little did the Germans listening-in realize that the words posah-tai-vo meant crazy white man, and were used to identify none other than Adolph Hitler!
The Comanche Signal Corp included:
Charles Chibitty, Haddon Codynah, Robert
Holder, Forrest Kassanavoid, Wellington Mihecoby, Edward Nahquaddy, Perry Noyabad,
Clifford Otitovo, Simmons Parker, Melvin Permansu, Elhin Red Elk, Roderick Red
Elk, Larry Saupitty, Morris (Sunrise) Tabbyetchy, Tony Tabbytite, Ralph Wahnee,
and Willie Yackeschi.
Charles Chibitty, the last surviving Comanche Code Talker Died July 20, 2005 (more on him later)
The most ambitious effort to employ native languages as secret codes was championed by Philip Johnston. Johnston was a World War I veteran who had come by covered wagon to settle on Navajo land in northern Arizona with his missionary family. By age 9, he had gained such proficiency in Navajo language that he acted as interpreter between two Navajo leaders and President Theodore Roosevelt when they met in 1901. Johnston had heard of the Choctaw Code Talkers, and he was convinced that the Navajo language would also be nearly impossible for an enemy to understand. After all, he was one of perhaps 30 non-natives who understood the complex and subtle Navajo expressions. Now, all he needed to do was convince the skeptical military that he had the answer to their security problems.
Johnston did convince Lt. Col. James E. Jones, a Marine signal officer, to let him put on a demonstration at Camp Elliott, near San Diego, in February of 1942. Navajo volunteers translated typical military messages from English to Navajo, and sent the messages to another room where other Navajos translated them back to English within 20 seconds. Using coding machines to convey the same messages took 30 minutes. The Marines agreed to enlist Johnston and 30 Navajos to try their system in actual combat...but it had to be foolproof. Allied forces in the Pacific would be staking their lives on the security of the orders sent via the Code Talkers.
Carl Gorman was one of the Navajos sent to Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942. As a young boy attending school at the Rehoboth Mission in Chinle, Arizona, he had been locked in chains in the school basement for refusing to speak English instead of Navajo. With Japanese forces sweeping over Guadalcanal and listening to every Marine radio frequency, Gorman and his friends William Yazzie, Jack Nez and Oscar Ilthma called in artillery fire and provided status reports in what again sounded like gibberish to the enemy.
The Japanese cracked every code that the Army and Navy came up with, but not the Navajo code.
Navajo is a spoken language handed down orally from generation to generation. The Code Talkers created a system of native words to represent characters of the English alphabet, so that they could spell out English words that had no Navajo equivalent. They also assigned their own expressions, like "iron-fish" to mean submarine, for over 400 important military terms. Each Code Talker memorized these special words. There were no written materials that could be captured.
Joe Kieyoomia, a Navajo soldier who was not trained as a Code Talker, was captured and survived the Bataan Death March, only to be tortured into trying to decode intercepted Marine communications. Left standing naked in the snow, feet frozen to the parade ground, he couldn't confess to what he didn't understand. The secret code made no sense, even to another Navajo.
It was said by high military officers that the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima without the Navajo Code Talkers, and World War II might have had a different outcome without their contribution.
The 400 Navajos who were recruited and served as Code Talkers came home from the war and went through special native ceremonies called the "Enemy Way" to exorcise them of the painful memories of hand to hand combat and ghosts of the dead.
Incredibly, one of America's most valuable secret weapons had been developed thousands of years before there even was a United States....
It was the power of the Native American Language.
The Navajo Code