Chocotaws: The other code talkers

  • Published
  • By Ann Lukens
  • Native American History Month committee
Most Americans only recently became of the role that Native American code talkers played in military history. Films such as "Windtalkers" have opened our eyes to the role of Navajo code talkers. In actuality, the use of code talkers began more than 20 years before, during another war.

In October 1918, near the end of World War I, eight Choctaws helped Americans win several key battles in France. These Choctaws were employed to transmit messages speaking in their native language which baffled the Germans who had tapped the military telephone lines. The Germans had broken every code used by the Americans and Allies up to this point.

The use of native languages as a weapon of war was an ironic twist. American government officials had tried from 1870 to the mid 1930s to eradicate the use and knowledge of native languages and culture as part of the Indian's boarding school experience.

In late 1940, the Department of the Army, already aware of the success of code talking, was looking for a native language to use as a code. They settled on the use of Comanche as it was an unwritten language.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs began recruiting young, unmarried Comanche men who were fluent in both their native tongue and English for a special duty with the Army Signal Corps.

All but one had attended government boarding schools, meaning the candidates were already familiar with a military lifestyle.

These new recruits were assigned to the 4th Infantry Division and traveled to Georgia for basic training. After this, they began advanced training in communications.

By the end of 1941, some 250 words for the new Comanche code had been created, including strictly military terms (e.g., mortar, machine gun, tank, etc). Messages were sent with everyday Comanche and the coded military terms were inserted as needed, with even other Comanches not able to understand.

When not working on or practicing use of the code, the Comanche soldiers were active on the fort's boxing team or performing traditional tribal dances for the on-post and civilian communities. The pace of training increased following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.

The code talkers continued to learn the skills of advanced radio training and telephone communications. In July 1942, the 4th Infantry Division was alerted for overseas duty. By this time, there were only 14 Comanche code talkers.

The division arrived in England in January 1944 and by May was moved to secluded marshlands in preparation for Operation Overlord, the invasion of France at Normandy.

A pair of Comanche code talkers was assigned at each infantry regiment or regimental combat team and another pair to each attached artillery battalion. The 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, and faced underwater mines, barbed wire, trenches, machine gun nests and 88 mm artillery.

For that reason, communications on that beach and in the year that followed focused on artillery, tanks and machine guns. Having made it off bloody Utah Beach, the division and their code talkers continued to fight the Germans across the hedgerows of France and the Dragon's teeth across the Siegfried Line.

They also provided secure communications for Gen. George Patton's tank attacks and saw action during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Some members of the 4th ID helped liberate the German concentration camp at Dachau in Munich, Germany.

By the time Germany surrendered in May 1945, elements of the 4th ID were near the Austrian border. Having accumulated enough combat points, the majority of the code talkers were stateside for rest and relaxation, awaiting reassignment to the Pacific theater when Japan surrendered in August 1945.

There is no way to estimate the number of lives saved by the unbreakable codes developed by the Comanche and Navajo code talkers during World War II. Some of the Comanche code talkers went on to serve in the Korean War. The Comanche code talkers earned several Bronze Stars for valorous action in combat, one earned a Silver Star and many earned Purple Hearts plus numerous campaign ribbons.

The last surviving Comanche code talker, Charles Chibitty, laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in November 2002. This quiet hero died at age 83 on July 20, 2005, closing a chapter in military history.