During World War I, one main problem for the Allies was the Germans’ ability to listen in on their telephone lines and to break their codes, which were generally based on either European languages or mathematical progressions. An apocryphal story spread around that a German once interrupted a U.S. Signal Corps member sending a message to taunt his use of code words. Sending out human runners proved equally ineffective since about one in four were captured or killed. And other methods of communications, such as color-coded rockets, electronic buzzers, and carrier pigeons, were too limiting, too slow, too unreliable or a combination thereof.
German intelligence monitoring Allied radios and telephone messages resulted in many lost battles and very heavy casualties. Concerned they war may be lost to the Germans, Allied commanding generals were constantly pushing their signal people to find a solution. Some progress was made but not enough to stop everyday losses.
But it wasn’t until early 1918 that a solution was stumbled upon by chance.
When Col. A. W. Bloor, U.S. Army, noticed a number of American Indians serving with him in the 142nd Infantry in France. Overhearing two Choctaw Native Americans speaking with each another in their native language, he realized he could not understand them. He also realized that if he could not understand them, the same would be true for Germans, no matter how good their English skills. Besides, many Native American languages have never been written down. With the active cooperation of his Choctaw soldiers, he tested and deployed a code, using the Choctaw language in place of regular military code.
The first combat test took place on October 26, 1918, when Col. Bloor ordered a “delicate” withdrawal of two companies of the 2nd Battalion, from Chufilly to Chardeny. Using a field telephone, the code talkers delivered a message in their native tongue which their colleagues on the other end quickly translated back into English. “The enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages,” Bloor observed. A captured German officer confirmed they were “completely confused by the Native America language and gained no benefit whatsoever” from their wiretaps. Thus began the Choctaw “code talkers.”
The Choctaw soldiers were incredibly gracious and willing to share their own language. They didn’t have to but they did. They had something unique and were incredibly proud of that.
Two American Native officers were selected to supervise a communications system staffed by 19 Choctaw code talkers.
The team transmitted messages relating to troop movements and their own tactical plans in their native tongue. Lacking the words for certain modern-day military terms, they used “big gun” for artillery, “little gun shoot fast” for machine gun, “stone” for grenade and “scalps” for casualties, among other substitutions, thereby becoming true code talkers rather than simply communications operators speaking a little-known language.
Soldiers from other tribes, including the Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Osage and Yankton Sioux also were enlisted to communicate as code talkers. Previous to their arrival in France, the Germans had broken every American code used but the Germans never broke the Native America’s “code.”
Ironically, the Choctaw language was under pressure back in America. It was a time of cultural assimilation. Government attempts to ‘civilize’ American Indians involved putting their children in state-run boarding schools, where they were often severely punished for speaking in their native tongue. On the battlefields of France, the Native American language was the much-needed answer to a very big problem.
Like other tribes, the Choctaw’s whole way of life was under threat. Little more than a generation before, they had been forcibly removed from their ancestral land. Under the 1830 Indian Removal Act, they were marched from areas around Mississippi to what is now Oklahoma. It is known as the ‘Trail of Tears.’ It is estimated 12,000 Choctaw moved where 2,500 died of hunger, disease, and exhaustion.
In the autumn of 1918, U.S. troops were involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. Within hours, eight Choctaw speakers had been dispatched to strategic positions. They were instrumental in helping U.S. troops win several key battles. Even if the Germans were listening, they couldn’t understand. It was also the quickest way of coding and decoding information, faster than any machine, giving U.S. troops a crucial edge over the enemy.
Among the soldiers of the Choctaw nation was Pvt. Joseph Oklahombi, the most-decorated from Oklahoma. He served in Company D, First World War I soldier Battalion, 141st Regiment, Seventy-first Brigade of the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division during World War I, where he was one of the Choctaw “code talkers.”
On October 8, 1918, Oklahombi was at St. Etienne, France. According to some reports, he and 23 other soldiers attacked an enemy position and captured 171 Germans while killing some 79 more. They held their position for four days while under attack. Oklahombi was awarded the Silver Star with Victory Ribbon, and the Croix de Guerre from France’s Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain. At the time the members of the Choctaw nation were not formally U.S. citizens.
Oklahombi was married and had a son. He was killed on April 13, 1960, when hit by a truck while walking along a road. He was buried with military honors at Yashau Cemetery in Broken Bow, Oklahoma.
All of the telephone squad returned home to their families. For decades, their role in code talking was barely known outside the tribe and their efforts went unrecognized. In some cases, their own wives and families knew very little.
Native Americans did not receive nationwide citizenship until 1924, yet the Choctaws were both patriotic and valiant, with a desire to serve in the war effort. Many Choctaw code talkers were instrumental in ending the war. Choctaw and other Tribal Nation served with distinction using Native languages in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
In 1989 the French Government bestowed the Chevalier de L’Ordre National du Merite (Knight of the Order of National Merit) posthumously to the Choctaw code talkers of WWI and the Comanche and Navajo code talkers of WWII.
But it was only in 2008 that the Code Talkers Recognition Act was passed in the U.S. Senate recognizing the hundreds of overlooked code talkers from different tribes, including the Choctaw. Each tribal government received Congressional Gold Medals, America’s highest civilian honor. They were inscribed with a unique design to represent their tribe. The families of each code talker received a silver version of the gold medal.
At the ceremony, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: “In this nation’s hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed. The United States Government turned to a people and a language they had tried to eradicate.”
Among these brave warriors were the famed Wind Talkers of the Navajo Tribe in World War II, who were deserving of the Gold Medal they received from Congress in the year 2000.
The legislation was passed in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to award the Choctaw, Comanche and other Indian soldiers who were Code Talkers a Gold Medal. Support and co-sponsorship were requested of all of the Congress. The law was signed in 2008 by the President. “Honoring Native American code talkers is long overdue,” the bill admitted.
Pursuant to the legislation, a medal ceremony took place in November 2013 in Washington, D.C., with 33 tribes known to have had code-talking members in attendance.
It was a bittersweet moment. None of the original code talkers alive from the Choctaw nation to see this moment and none of their children were alive. But it was also an incredible moment. Those men deserved to be honored.