Indian Military “Code Talkers”
By Mike Wright
(note: Research for this article was began before all Choctaw Code-Talkers had been documented)
Information is beginning to surface about a group of heroic but heretofore mostly unacknowledged Oklahomans: the Indian “Code-Talkers” who during the World Wars obstructed German interceptors by transmitting Allied messages in their native languages.
Oklahoma Indians from the Comanche, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Choctaw nations performed this service during World War II. The Choctaw were active in both wars and were the original developers of code-talking during the earlier one. Much has been written about the Navajo code-talkers who operated in the Pacific during World War II. It is said that the Iwo Jima landing was directed in Navajo code.
One author who has glorified the Navajo in this regard is Philip Johnston, an Arizona native who mistakenly credits them with originating the code-talking technique while serving as Marine against the Japanese. In a 1964 article in Masterkey, a journal of Indian history, he quotes an American Marine officer’s claim that Canadians in World War I unsuccessfully attempted to use Indian languages when their telephone lines were tapped by the Germans.
According to Lt. Col. James E. Jones, these Indians “had no words in their vocabulary that were exact equivalents for military terms. For example, they could find no way of transmitting ‘machine gun’ or ‘barrage’. ” The author does not inform us of the tribe to which these uncreative Indians belonged. They certainly could not have been Oklahoma Choctaw.
By Johnston’s account, the clever Navajo overcame the absence of modern military terms by adapting words and phrases in their language. For example, the Navajo words for “fast shooter” were used to designate a machine gun, and “iron rain” described a barrage. Johnston, unfortunately, did not do his homework. If he had researched his subject properly, he might have come across a 1919 U.S. military archive document entitled “Transmitting Messages in Choctaw.” Issued by Col. A.W. Bloor of the 142nd Infantry, the memorandum clearly confirms that Choctaw Indians performed successfully as code-talkers during World War I. The occasion was the battle at St. Etienne, France.
Like the Navajo, the Choctaw language also was lacking in military terms. But the solution which Johnston claims was originated by Navajo Marines was actually developed earlier by the Choctaw. Col. Bloor writes: “The Indian 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.”
Acknowledgement also needs to be extended to the Oklahoma Indians who participated in the liberation of France and the defeat of fascism during World War II. Although no publications have surfaced in relation to the work of the Kiowa and Pawnee, the Lawton Morning Press once carried a feature article containing a brief history of the Comanche code-talkers (July 9, 1983). Operating out of the 4th Signal Company of the 4th Infantry Division, fourteen Oklahoma Comanche were sent to Europe after receiving training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Active in the Normandy invasion, they assisted Allied efforts in overcoming German resistance at St. Lo and went on to help win the very important victory in the Battle of the Bulge. In the near future more information will surface about the Oklahoma Indian code-talkers. In recent months the Choctaw newspaper Bishinik has published several articles on the subject, and Congressman Jim Jones has asked military archivist for assistance in providing the identities and records of all code-talkers.
The story has great human interest appeal. Given the overwhelming dominance imposed by the Anglicization of North America, it is to the Indians’ credit that the cultural fabric of their tribes was strong enough to maintain linguistic integrity. It is likely that the Germans could have broken any code designed by conventional methods. After all, the American academic traditions in logic, linguistics and math are mostly derived from our European ancestry. But the obscure Indian languages were probably beyond the Germans’ reach. on those occasions during which code-talkers were called to service, one can say that they displayed a superior intelligence.
(The author, an associate of Scientific Social Research of Norman, wishes to thank the contributors who assisted in compiling information for this article: Michael Doty of the Comanche Nation, Dr. C. Alton Brown of Oklahoma City, Christa Wakefield of Tulsa, Judy Allen of the Choctaw Nation, and Roy Stewart of Oklahoma City.)