World War One: The original code talkers

(L-R) Joseph Oklahombi, Tobias Frazier and Otis Leader The men rarely talked about their role when they returned from the war

When US military codes kept being broken by the Germans in WW1 a Native American tribe came to the rescue. They just spoke their own language - which baffled the enemy - and paved the way for other Native American "code talkers" in WW2.

It's an irony that probably didn't go unnoticed by Choctaw soldiers fighting in World War One. While the tribe's children were being whipped for speaking in their native tongue at schools back home in Oklahoma, on the battlefields of France the Native American language was the much-needed answer to a very big problem.

In the autumn of 1918, US troops were involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. It was one of the largest frontline commitments of American soldiers in WW1, but communications in the field were compromised. The Germans had successfully tapped telephone lines, were deciphering codes and repeatedly capturing runners sent out to deliver messages directly.

"It was a huge problem and they couldn't figure out a way around it," says Matt Reed, curator of American Indian Collections at the Oklahoma History Center, the headquarters of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

The solution was stumbled upon by chance, an overheard conversation between two Choctaw soldiers in the 142nd Infantry Regiment. The pair were chatting in camp when a captain walked by and asked what language they were speaking. Realising the potential for communication, he then asked if there were other speakers among the troops. The men knew of Choctaw soldiers at company headquarters. Using a field telephone the captain got the men to deliver a message in their native tongue which their colleagues quickly translated back into English. The Choctaw Telephone Squad was born and so was code talking.

"Using the Choctaw language had huge advantages," says Dr William Meadows of Missouri State University, the only academic to have studied and written extensively on the Choctaw code talkers. "It was a largely unknown language. Only a few American Indian tribes had more than 20,000 people so their languages weren't widely spoken and most weren't written down. Even if they were, it was usually only the Bible and hymns, which were consumed locally."

The squad was put into action almost immediately. Within hours, eight Choctaw speakers had been dispatched to strategic positions. They were instrumental in helping US troops win several key battles, says Meadows.

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Communication in WW1
A WW1 soldier with messenger dogs
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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 US troops a crucial edge over the enemy.

"The language flabbergasted the Germans," says Reed, who adds that strange theories began to circulate about how these sounds were produced. "There are stories that they thought the US had invented a contraption to speak underwater."

Choctaw Telephone Squad

Members of the Choctaw Telephone Squad

Memo from commander of 142nd Infantry Division, Colonel A W Bloor, to division headquarters, January 23, 1919.

It was recognized that of all the various methods of liaison the telephone presented the greatest possibilities... It was well understood, however, that the German was a past master of "listening in"... 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.

The regiment possessed a company of Indians... there was hardly one chance in a million that Fritz would be able to translate these dialects and the plan to have these Indians transmit telephone messages was adopted.

The Indians were used repeatedly in preparation for the assault on Forest Farm... The enemy's complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages.

Source: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

Choctaw didn't cover many military terms so coded words were devised. Machine gun was "little gun shoot fast" and battalions were indicated by a number of grains of corn. It created a "code within a code" and made the language even more impenetrable, says Meadows.

In total, 19 Choctaw soldiers were recruited to the telephone squad. They came from the 141st, 142nd and 143rd Infantry Regiments, says Meadows. Many knew each other from Oklahoma. Later, other American Indian tribes were used in the same way, the Comanche among them.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive turned out to be part of the final Allied campaign on the Western Front, but the work of the Choctaw shaped military communications in future conflicts. The Navajo and Comanche code talkers of WW2 are the most famous.

Two types of code talking were used in both wars, says Meadows, author of The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II. The first used special military terms devised in the native language, the second didn't and just used the native vocabulary already spoken. It is believed none of the languages or codes used have ever been broken by an enemy, he adds.

"Code talking was an idea that was copied over and over but it may never have happened had it not been for the Choctaw," says Nuchi Nashoba, president of the Choctaw Code Talkers Association. Her great-grandfather Ben Carterby was one of the men used in the original test to send a message on the Western Front.

"They were the original code talkers and that will always be a source of immense pride to our tribe."

But at the same time,the Choctaw language was under pressure back in the US. It was a time of cultural assimilation. Government attempts to "civilise" American Indians involved putting their children in state-run boarding schools, where they were often severely punished for speaking in their native tongue.

Nuchi Nashoba holding a photo of her great grandfather Ben Carterby Relatives fought to get recognition for their ancestors

"You had this crazy situation where the Choctaw language was being used as a formidable weapon of war, yet back home children were being beaten at school for using it," says Judy Allen, senior executive officer of tribal relations with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. "The two soldiers who were overheard by the officer probably thought they were in trouble rather than about to provide the answer to the army's communication problems."

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 - of the estimated 12,000 Choctaw moved, some 2,500 died of hunger, disease and exhaustion.

But when the US government needed them, they responded, says Meadows. "The Choctaw soldiers were incredibly gracious and willing to share their language. They didn't have to but they did. They had something unique and were incredibly proud of that."

Nationwide, American Indians didn't get US citizenship until 1924, years after WW1 had finished, yet more than 12,000 fought, according to the National Museum of the American Indian. They volunteered to fight because defending their land and people was part of their culture and tradition.

"It was an extension of the traditional warrior role," says Reed. "Men protected and provided for those who couldn't do it themselves or weren't expected to. It's about what it means to be a man and a leader. Warriors were regarded with the utmost respect in their communities. It was the same with veterans and still is today."

Choctaw code talker Joseph Oklahombi with family The code talkers spoke very little about their role

All of the telephone squad returned home to their families, says Meadows. For decades, their role in code talking was barely known outside the tribe and their efforts went unrecognised. In some cases, their own wives and families knew very little.

"It is not Choctaw belief to talk about your own achievements, it's up to others to praise you," says Nashoba. "The code talkers would not have told many stories about themselves, they regarded what they had done as just doing their duty. When my great grandfather was interviewed for a local publication after he returned from the war, he simply said, 'I went to France, I saw the country and I came back alive.' Just that."

It was also a sensitive issue for the government. It would have been difficult to explain that the very languages they were trying eradicate in America had been instrumental in communicating on the battlefield. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and government did not emphasise their use, says Meadows. Military leaders also realised the potential of using native languages and didn't want the strategy widely known.

"Although the Navajo code talkers of WW2 received public attention when their code was declassified in 1968 and received congressional recognition and gold and silver medals in 2001, all other code talkers remained federally unrecognised," says Meadows.

But the attention the Navajo code talkers received soon sparked interest in the Choctaw code talkers. The men's relatives and tribe gathered what information they could but only a handful of documents existed and few veterans were still alive. They worked and campaigned hard, along with other tribes, to get recognition for the men.

Other tribes used as code talkers

  • Assiniboine
  • Chippewa and Oneida
  • Cree
  • Crow
  • Hopi
  • Kiowa
  • Menominee
  • Mississauga
  • Muscogee
  • Sca and Fox
  • Sioux

Source: Code Talkers Recognition Act 2008

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 WW1 and WW2 and the Comanche code talkers of WW2.

But it was only in 2008 that the Code Talkers Recognition Act was passed in the US recognising the hundreds of overlooked code talkers from different tribes, including the Choctaw. Finally, in November last year, each tribal government received Congressional Gold Medals, America's highest civilian honour. 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 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."

It was a bittersweet moment, says Nashoba. "The original code talkers never got to see that day and many of their relatives who had campaigned so hard to get recognition for them had also died. But it was also an incredible moment, I can't put into words the joy and pride we felt. Those men deserved to be honoured."

No-one could have known that a conversation overheard by chance would end up being so significant, says Meadows. "Sometimes great things come about by accident rather than design."

Discover more about the inventive weird and wonderful ways messages were sent during WW1 and more about the World War One Centenary.

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