World War I Choctaw code talkers: 36th division of the National Guard.
During WW I, the relay of strategic information was difficult, as German forces were masters of breaking coded communications among the Allied Forces and had tapped into every line of communication. Towards the end of the war, it was realized that among the troops were men who spoke a language that was not Latin based and had never been written. While there are many conflicting reports and interpretations of the details of this story, there are three main facts that are not disputed. First, during WW I, over 10,000 Native Americans, approximately 25% of the adult male Native population, voluntarily served on active duty with U.S. military forces, even though Native Americans did not enjoy all the rights of citizenship, until 1924 when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act (Flaherty 1986, Meadows 2002, Milligan 2003, Morris 2006). Native Americans have volunteered for war at a rate twice that of the rest of the American population since WW I (Meadows 2002:8). Second, within 24 hours of using a Native American language for sensitive Allied military communications in WW I, the German forces ceased advancing, and within 72 hours the German forces were in full retreat (Meadows 2002, Milligan 2003). This German retreat was precipitated by the lack of information about Allied troop movements. Third, the Choctaw men of the 36th Infantry Division were the first to use a Native American language for verbal communication as a military code (Meadows 2002, Milligan 2003, Allen 2007).
36th Infantry Division
Created in July 1917, the 36th Infantry Division was composed of guardsmen from Texas and Oklahoma. From its initial formation, it was considered the most ethnically diverse division in the National Guard. In particular, the 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division included soldiers from 14 different tribes including the Arapaho, Caddo, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Delaware, Osage, Peoria, Ponca, Quapaw, Seminole, and Shawnee. The 143rd Infantry Regiment was also known for having a large number of Native Americans among the regiment. In addition to Native Americans, other ethnicities represented in the 36th Division included Mexicans, Germans, Irish, Italians, and Swedes.
The 36th trained for its overseas service at Camp Bowie, which is now owned by the Texas Military Forces (TXMF), near Fort Worth, Texas, and the first units arrived in France in May 1918. At least 87 Choctaw men trained at Camp Bowie as part of the men of Company E, 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division. In August 1918, the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division, was moved to France for additional training. However, their training would be cut short when the regiment was needed on the front line.The 36th and 2nd Infantry Divisions were attached to the French 4th Army on September 29, 1918. While in the Argonne Forest of Northern France in October of 1918, the U.S. commanders were tasked with capturing German forces within the Forest Ferme (or Forest Farm). The 71st Brigade of the 36th Division (including the 142nd Infantry Regiment) relieved the 2nd and 4th Brigade of the 2nd Division following the first attack on October 6, 1918, when nearly 1100 of them were killed, wounded, or captured. The first action of the 71st Brigade resulted in an overall gain of 600 yards, not the best, but not the worst, for a green brigade who arrived at the front one day and launched an attack the next morning. Casualties were heavy--almost 1600. The 71st and the 72nd brigades continued to push the Germans back slowly. In their withdrawal, the Germans had left a pocket on the west bank of the Aisne River, in the Forest Ferme. The mission of eliminating this particular pocket of German troops came to the 36th Division (Scribner n.d.).
American forces were seeking more secure means of communication, as they knew that Germans were tapping into their radio and telephone messages and had succeeded in capturing messengers. While Regimental Commander Colonel Alfred W. Bloor and Captain E. W. Horner are often credited with the idea of using the Choctaw language as a code, one of the code talkers attributed the idea to Captain Lawrence (Bloor 1919, Bishinik 1986, Meadows 2002). According to Solomon Louis, one of the 18 Choctaw code talkers, Captain Lawrence was walking past a group of men when he happened to overhear Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb conversing in their native Choctaw language. The captain then asked Louis, "Corporal, how many of you Choctaw boys do we have in the battalion?" After conferring with Bobb, Louis reported that there were at least eight men in the battalion who spoke fluent Choctaw. Captain Lawrence then asked, "Are any of them over in Headquarters Company?" Louis replied "I think Carterby and Maytubby are over there." Lawrence got onto a field telephone and told headquarters to find Ben Carterby and Pete Maytubby and alert them to stand by. Lawrence told his commanding officer, Regimental Commander Colonel Alfred W. Bloor, "Get them and stand by, I've got an idea that just might get these [Germans] off our backs." Lawrence told Bobb and Louis, "I'm going to give you a message to call in to headquarters. I want you to give them a message in your language. There will be somebody there who can understand it" (Bishinik 1986). The first message to translate and relay was given to Mitchell Bobb, who used the field telephone to deliver the first Choctaw coded message to fellow Choctaw Ben Carterby, who then translated it back into English for the battalion commander on the other end (Meadows 2002). Within a matter of hours the location of the original eight Choctaw men had been shifted until there was at least one in each field Company Headquarters (Bishinik 1986, 1994).
Answering the Call
On October 26, 1918, the Choctaw soldiers transmitted messages in their native language for the Allied commanders whowere coordinating information in preparation for the attack the following morning. The German forces had no translators for the Choctaw language, nor did they have any other method of deciphering the new "code." The use of the Choctaw language was a complete success and marked a turning point in the war. The Allies were able to capture over 500 prisoners in thirty minutes on October 27, 1918. Commanding officer, Colonel Alfred W. Bloor, of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, wrote in a memo to the headquarters in 1919 detailing the events that took place:
A rumor was out that our Division had given false co-ordinates of our supply dump, and that in thirty minutes the enemy shells were falling on the point. We felt sure the enemy knew too much. It was therefore necessary to code every message of importance and coding and decoding took valuable time ... While comparatively inactive at Vaux-Champagne, it was remembered that the regiment possessed a company of Native Americans. They spoke twenty-six different languages or dialects, only four or five of which were ever written. There was hardly one chance in a million that the Germans would be able to translate these dialects, and the plan to have these men transmit telephone messages was adopted. The regiment was fortunate in having two Native American officers who spoke several of the dialects. Soldiers from the Choctaw tribe were chosen and one placed in each P.C. (Point of Command) ... The Native speakers were used repeatedly on the 27th in preparation for the assault on Forest Farm (Ferme). The enemy's complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages ... It had been found that the Choctaw vocabulary of military terms was insufficient. The Indian [term] for "big gun" was used to indicate artillery. "Little gun shoot fast," was substituted for machine gun, and the battalions were indicated by "one, two, and three grains of corn" (Bloor 1919).
Within 24 hours after the first messages were transmitted, the German advances were stopped, and within 72 hours, the Germans were in full retreat (Bishinik 1986). This campaign helped set the stage for the signing of the Armistice in November of 1918. By the end of the war, at least 18 men served as Choctaw code talkers for the Allied Forces. While the war may have been won without the use of the Choctaw language, it most certainly would have taken longer to win and would have cost more lives. The use of the Choctaw language was so successful that Native American languages were used again in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War (Pyle 1999).
Colonel Bloor's letter is one of two written records of Native Americans participation in sending coded messages in WW I. The second letter is written by Lieutenant Colonel William J. Morrissey, of the 142nd Infantry Regiment. In this letter dated March 2, 1919, Morrissey lists 15 different Choctaw terms that were used to in place of military words that did not exist in the Choctaw language. These terms are:
Regiment The Tribe 1st Battalion 1 Grain corn 2nd Battalion 2 Grains of corn 3rd Battalion 5 Grains of corn Company Bow Platoon Thong Machine Gun Little gun shoot fast Artillery Big gun Ammunition Arrows Grenade Stones Rations Food Attack Fight Patrol Many scouts Casualties Scalps Gas Bad air
The fact that both Bloor and Morrissey specifically reported that the Choctaw language was used in military communications provides evidence that they were in fact the first to translate messages. It does not, however, negate the possibility that the other tribes represented within the 142 Infantry Regiment, or for that matter within the rest of the Allied Forces, also participated in coding messages in their native tongue.
Choctaw Chief Pushmataha, who died in 1827, once predicted that the "Choctaw war cry" would be heard in foreign lands (Milligan 2003). Chief Pushmataha had no idea how accurate this phrase would become in the Great War, nor could he have foreseen how many Choctaw would serve on active duty with the U.S. military in foreign lands. After the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the 36th Division adopted a new divisional insignia containing a blue arrowhead with akhaki-colored "T" across it--representing the combined forces of both Oklahoma and Texas (Chastaine 1920: 271-272). This symbol is another reminder of the combined contributions of the Native American, Oklahoman, and Texan soldiers who served in WW I.
The men of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division, are a unique group of individuals. The 18 men who eventually served as Choctaw code talkers in WW I are: Albert Billy, Mitchell Bobb, Victor Brown, Ben Carterby, George Davenport, Joseph Davenport, James Edwards, Tobias Frazier, Benjamin Hampton, Noel Johnson, Otis Leader, Solomon Louis, Pete Maytubby, Jeff Nelson, Joseph Oklahombi, Robert Taylor, Walter Veach, and Calvin Wilson. Some of the interesting stories of their achievements come from a variety of sources including family stories, school records, and military records to name a few (Bishinik 2000a, 2000b, Milligan 2003).
Albert Billy relayed a story to his daughter about the time that some Germans were captured the night after the Choctaw language was used to code and transmit messages. The captured German General said he had just one question: "What nationality was on the phones that night?" This provided more proof that the Germans were, in fact, listening to Allied communications, and that they couldn't decipher the messages. The only reply the German officer received was, "They were only Americans".
Victor Brown was one of two Choctaw men who served in the 143rd Infantry Regiment. He was also one of the 14 code talkers who attended Armstrong Academy prior to enlisting. The Armstrong Academy was a boarding school dedicated to teaching Native Americans the rigors of the military. No matter what happened at the boarding school, attendance at the Armstrong Academy was a primary reason these men were so well suited for the military. Despite the language barriers, as many of the soldiers did not speak English very well, these men knew what specific words, such as "Attention", meant and were better at drills than those soldiers for whom English was their first language. During WW I, Victor Brown received a citation from President Wilson after being wounded and gassed with mustard gas. He was proud of "fooling the Germans" with the Choctaw language, and was pleased to have served in France. According to his daughter, Napanee Brown Coffman, Victor Brown was one-fourth French and three-quarters Choctaw.
Joseph Oklahombi was another man who served in the 143rd Infantry Regiment during WW I. Oklahombi's stories are probably some of the most famous and often repeated. On one occasion while serving with Allied Forces in France, Oklahombi happened upon a group of German soldiers having a meal and resting in a cemetery that was enclosed by high walls with only one gate. Reportedly, Oklahombi single-handedly began firing at the men, killing 79, until the whole force of Germans, a total of 171 men, surrendered.
Another event involving Oklahombi is reported by Ben Carterby, also a code talker and a buddy of Oklahombi's. One day, according to Carterby, a French detention camp officer spotted Oklahombi approaching with two German prisoners, but when he arrived at the entrance to the detention camp there was only one prisoner. When the French officer realized this, he asked, "Where's the other one?" Oklahombi, somewhat bewildered by the inquiry, answered, "I kill him." Before the astonished officer could recover, Oklahombi added, "Want me to go back and kill him some more?"
Otis Leader's story is another memorable account from this time period. Some U.S. civilians, who were fearful of the war, accused innocent civilians of being enemy spies. On April 5, several federal agents followed three men around the Fort Worth Stockyard in Texas simply because they looked different from the other cattlemen. One of the men followed by the federal agents was Otis Leader, a member of the Choctaw Tribe in Oklahoma. Leader was a large man who was 6 foot and 3 inches in height, and undoubtedly stuck out in any crowd. He was traveling with two naturalized U.S. citizens from Switzerland, who owned a ranch in Pittsburg County, Oklahoma. When the federal agents called the Pittsburg County sheriff to ask about the men, the sheriff just laughed. He knew Leader was far from dangerous and was confident that Leader was loyal and did not represent a danger to the war effort. When Leader learned that his loyalty to the U.S. had been questioned, he was so incensed that he immediately enlisted with the U.S. Army. Otis Leader would go on to become one of the most successful weapons against the German forces in WW I because of his role with the Choctaw code talkers.
James Edwards was one of the original eight code talkers in WWI. After December 7, 1941, he tried to enlist again stating "Maybe they haven't learned to talk Choctaw, and they [Allied Forces] need us now" (Daily Oklahoman 1941). Edwards was not allowed to enlist to fight in WW II, however, as he was older and married.
Of course, these accounts tell only a small part of the story. Remarkably, during WW I, Oklahoma schools banned the use of the Choctaw language, even though it was the one set of codes that the Germans had not been able to translate. Some Oklahoma schools continued to ban the use of the Choctaw language even after WW I. Employees of boarding schools for Native Americans "told Indians that speaking in their native tongue was as bad as cursing" and were punished accordingly (Callaway 1992).
Terms Used by the Choctaw Code Talkers (provided by the Choctaw Code Talkers Association) Regiment tribe Choctaw pronunciation 1st Battalion one tanch nihi tanch grain of achaffa ni-hi-a-chaf-fa corn 2nd Battalion two tanch nihi tanch grains tuklo ni-hi-tuk-lo of corn 3rd Battalion five tanch nihi tanch grains tahlapi ni-hi-ta-hla-pi of corn Company bow iti i-ti-ta-nam-po tanampo Platoon thong hlibata hli-ba-ta Maching gun little tanampushi ta-nam-pu-shi gun tushpat tush-pat shoot tokahli to-kah-li fast Artillery big gun tanampo ta-nam-po- chito chi-to Ammunition arrow uski naki is-ki na-ki Grenade stone tali ta-li Ration food ilhpa ilh-pa Attack fight ittibbi it-tib-bi Patrol many tikba pisa tik-ba pi-sa scouts lawa la-wa Casualty scouts takba pisa tak-ba pi-sa Gas bad air mahli mah-li ok-pu-lo okpulo Code talker signal chito chi-to speaker anumpuli a-num-pu-li Army tashka tash-ka chipota chi-po-ta A soldier (person in the tashka tash-ka military) chipota chi-po-ta
Even as the war took place and the Code Talkers were aiding the Allied Forces, schools in Oklahoma were stressing the importance of English and banning Choctaw. The irony is unmistakable. What is more, when the war came to an end, and the Choctaw returned home, the federal policy regarding Native languages did not change (Morris 2006).
While there are many possible explanations for these actions, including ignorance, racism, and continued stereotyping, perhaps, one reason is that information about the brave actions of the Choctaw code talkers was classified as "secret" until 1948. After WW I had ended, the men who provided their expertise in the Choctaw language and served as code talkers were sworn to secrecy. The reason for classifying this information and not making it public was that the military believed that the Choctaw language might be of use during a future war. The original group of WW I Choctaw code talkers honored this pledge of secrecy so fervently that some of their own families were not even aware that they had provided such an important service to the United States (Wilson, personal communications 2007). It is believed that even today, some descendents still do not know if their fathers or grandfathers were code talkers in WWI. As there were at least 87 Choctaw in the 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division, it is highly possible that more than 18 Choctaw men served as code talkers before the end of the war.
It has been almost 90 years since the Choctaw code talkers volunteered their services to the United States. Although medals were promised to the Choctaw code talkers for their communications contributions in WW I, they were never awarded (Bishinik 1986). While other tribes have received federal recognition from the United States for their services in later wars, the Choctaw code talkers of WW I have not. It is time that these code talkers receive the recognition they deserve for their unique services during WW I. The public has a right to know the stories of these brave men and the contribution they made to the American war effort.
With the exception of Colonel Bloor and Lieutenant Colonel Morrissey's letters in 1919, the Native American soldiers of WW I were largely ignored by American military forces. The British and the French, however, did recognize and commend the efforts of the Choctaw soldiers. Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France in 1918, wrote, "I cannot forget the brilliant services which the valorous Indian soldiers of the American armies have rendered to the common cause and the energy, as well as the courage which they have shown to bring about victory--decisive victory--by attack" (Hale 1982:41; Meadows 2002). While the British and French Nations recognized and commended the actions of the Native Americans at the time, no medals were awarded.
The Choctaw Nation was the first to officially recognize the contributions of the code talkers in 1986 by awarding them individual "Choctaw Nation Medals of Valor." The French government recognized the code talkers in 1989 with the presentation of the "Knight of the National Order of Merit"(Chevalier de I' order National du Merite), the highest honor France can bestow on a foreign nation.
In September of 2007, the Texas Military Forces, home of the current 36th Infantry Division, was honored to recognize the service of the 18 Choctaw code talkers with "Lone Star Medals of Valor." These medals were awarded to the descendant family members of the code talkers during the opening ceremony for a permanent museum exhibit that honors the Choctaw code talkers of WW I. The exhibit is housed in the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry, in Austin, Texas, which is open to the public.
Currently, the Choctaw Nation is working with members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to pass federal legislation to formally recognize the services of these 18 men. The Choctaw code talkers of WW I deserve to be recognized with federal medals for their unique contributions to the war effort. To quote John Callaway, "Even though the 'Choctaw war cry' has been heard in foreign lands as predicted, it still needs to be heard in the halls of Congress" (1992). This legislation is currently being presented. Please write your representatives and urge them to support this bill.
I would like to acknowledge and thank Judy Allen, Executive Director of Public Relations for the Choctaw Nation, and the Choctaw Code Talkers Association for the images and information that they provided for this article. It is through their dedication that the story of the Choctaw Code Talkers of WWI will live on.
I would like to thank the Texas Military Forces, specifically Major General John T. Furlow and Retired Colonel Pat Simpson. Their unwavering dedication and commitment to recognizing the contributions of the Choctaw Code Talkers of WW I facilitated the completion of the Choctaw Code Talkers of WWI exhibit at the Texas Military Forces Museum in time for the dedication ceremony on September 16, 2007. This article would not be possible without their efforts.
Allen, Phillip. (2007). Choctaw Indian Code Talkers of World War I. Online article, website: www.choctawnation.com/History/Code Talkers/code_talkers_of_wwi.htm. Accessed on 26 January 2007.
Bishinik (The Choctaw Nation Newspaper)
(1986). "Germans Confused by Choctaw Code Talkers"., August.
(1994). "Choctaw Men Were Very First Code-Talkers, Using Their Native Language for Secret Messages in WW I". June.
(2000a). "Albert Billy". March.
(2000b). "Schlicht Billy". March.
Bloor, A.W., Colonel. (1919). "Transmitting Messages in Choctaw." Memo to Captain Spence care of the Commanding General of the 36th Division, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Military archives 23 January 1919.
Chastaine, Captain Ben H. (1920). Story of the 36th: The Experiences of the 36th Division in the World War. Oklahoma City: Harlow Publishing Company.
Callaway, John. (1992). Untitled. Durant, Oklahoma: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
(1996). "From Cursing to Code Talking." Bishinik, August: 4.
Daily Oklahoman. (1941). "Tongue Twister Ready: Choctaw Who Foiled Germans in 1918 Wants to Go". Oklahoma City. December 21.
Flaherty, Thomas H. and Henry Woodhead, eds. (1986). "Code Talkers Suggested by Choctaw Soldier." Bishinik, September:2. In The American Indians: The Way of the Warrior. Alexanderia, Virginia: Time-Life Books: 117.
Hale, Duane K. (1982). "Forgotten Heroes: American Indians in World War I." Four Winds 3(2):38-41.
Meadows, William C. (2002). The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II. The University of Texas Press, Austin.
Milligan, James C. (2003). The Choctaw of Oklahoma. H.V. Chapman & Sons, Abilene, Texas.
Morrissey, William J., Lieutenant Colonel. (1919). "Terms used by Indians over telephone." Memo to Lieutenant John P. Eddy, Historical Section.
Morris, Jessica. (2006). The Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I: A Study of the Survival and Validity of the Choctaw Language in the Early Twentieth Century. Unpublished M.A. Thesis, Department of Historical Studies, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Edwardsville, Indiana.
Pyle, Gregory E. (1999). "Official State of the Nation Address by Choctaw Chief", 6 September.
Scribner, John C.L., Brigadier General.n.d. Answering the Call: A History of the Texas National Guard, unpublished document.
Wilson, Evangeline. (2007). Personal Communications, 16 August. Code Talkers Descendent (Niece of James Edwards and cousin of Mitchell Bobb) and President of the Code Talkers Association for 10 years.
About the Author
An active participant in Native American interest groups since 1998, Marie has organized scholarship powwows, planned and hosted agency and tribal consultation meetings, and developed professional and personal relationships with numerous tribes in Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Louisiana. She earned an M.A. in Public Archaeology and Applied Anthropology from the University of South Florida (2004) and a B.A. in Archaeology and Anthropology from Baylor University (2000).
Marie is employed as a state contractor for the Texas Military Forces based at Camp Mabry, in Austin. Her primary responsibilities include Tribal consultation, public outreach, and archaeological site preservation. Marie, who is of Cherokee, Ojibwa, and Lakota descent, brings a unique perspective to her position by bridging the gap between tribal and U.S. governments.
Marie J. Archambeault, MA, RPA
Photos provided by Judy Allen, Choctaw Code Talkers Associatioin, and the Texas Military Forces Museum Archives.
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|Author:||Archambeault, Marie J|
|Date:||May 1, 2008|
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