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A telephone from circa 1910

Native American Code Breakers of WW1

How Choctaw Indians helped turn the tide of battle in World War 1

Image Credit: | Above: A telephone from circa 1910

During World War I, the Germans often learned of Allied tactical plans by tapping into their telephone lines and adeptly breaking their codes. Frustrated by these communications failures, a U.S. commander came up with the idea of using Choctaw Indians to transmit messages in their native language. This not only helped turn the tide of battle against the befuddled Germans, but it paved the way for the more extensive use of Native American code talkers in the next world war.

One of the so-called Five Civilised Tribes of the southeastern United States, the Choctaw traditionally farmed corn, beans and pumpkins while also hunting, fishing and gathering wild edibles. Despite allying themselves with the United States in the War of 1812, they were pressured afterwards into ceding millions of acres of land to the government. Following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, most members of the tribe were then forced to relocate to present-day Oklahoma in a series of poorly planned and poorly provisioned journeys that left an estimated 2,500 dead. In what would become a catchphrase for all Indian removal west of the Mississippi River, a Choctaw chief described it as a trail of tears.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, it had not yet granted citizenship to all Native Americans, and government-run boarding schools were still largely attempting to stamp out their languages and cultures. Nonetheless, several thousand Native Americans enlisted in the armed forces to fight the Central Powers. Nearly 1,000 of them representing some 26 tribes were purportedly in the 36th Division alone, which consisted of men from Texas and Oklahoma. They saw that they were needed to protect home and country, said Judy Allen, senior executive officer of tribal relations for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, so they went to the nearest facility where they could sign up and were shipped out.

In summer 1918, the 36th Division arrived in France to participate in the upcoming Meuse-Argonne campaign, a major offensive along the Western Front. At that point, the outcome of the conflict was still in doubt. World War I really wasn't decided until very, very late, explained William C. Meadows, a Native American studies professor at Missouri State University who has authored one book on code talking and is working on another. It wasn't like World War II where we clearly had them on the run.

One main problem for the Allies was the Germans' ability to listen in on their communications and to break their codes, which were generally based on either European languages or mathematical progressions. We couldn't keep anything secret, Allen said. An apocryphal story spread around that a German once interrupted a U.S. Signal Corps member to taunt his use of code words. Why don't you say Traub and Bullard instead of 'Grizzly Bear' and 'Petee Dink'? the German supposedly exclaimed. Anyway, Bullard is down the line at a conference. Sending out human runners proved equally ineffective, since about one in four were captured or killed. And other methods of communications, such as colour-coded rockets, electronic buzzers and carrier pigeons, were too limiting, too slow, too unreliable or a combination thereof.

Soon after the Meuse-Argonne campaign got underway, a company commander in the 36th Division reportedly happened to overhear two of his soldiers conversing in Choctaw. In a flash, he recognised the military potential of the language, essentially unknown to the Germans, and persuaded his superiors to post a Choctaw speaker at various field company headquarters. On October 26, 1918, the Choctaws were put to use for the first time as part of the withdrawal of two companies from the front. Having completed this mission without mishap, they then played a major role the following two days in an attack on a strongly fortified German position called Forest Ferme. The enemy's complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages, Colonel A.W. Bloor later wrote in an official report. The tide of battle turned within 24 hours, according to Bloor, and within 72 hours the Allies were on full attack.

At least 19 Choctaws subsequently completed a short training session. 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. They create these code words, but they don't actually get to use them because the war ends on the 11th [of November], Meadows said. Even so, Colonel Bloor described the results of the training session as very gratifying. It is believed, had the regiment gone back into the line, fine results would have been obtained, he declared. We were confident the possibilities of the telephone had been obtained without its hazards.

A captured German later admitted that his side couldn't make heads or tails of the Choctaw speakers, whom Allen credited with likely bringing about an earlier end to the war and saving hundreds of thousands of lives. The irony would not have been lost on them, she added, that the same government that was asking them to use their native language to win the war was punishing people for speaking it back home. American Indians from at least five other tribes also used their native tongues to transmit messages during World War I in an effort to confuse the Germans, although unlike the Choctaws they are not known to have invented intentionally coded vocabulary.

Code talkers made an even bigger impact during World War II, when the U.S. government specifically recruited Comanche, Hopi, Meskwaki, Chippewa-Oneida and Navajo tribal members for such work. The Navajo developed the most complex code, with over 600 terms, for use in the Pacific Theater, compared with about 250 terms for the World War II-era Comanche and under 20 terms for the World War I-era Choctaw. Even the other tribe members back home didn't know what this coded vocabulary meant, Meadows said. It was all gibberish to them. In addition to the handful of intentionally coded Native American languages employed by the Allies, they used two dozen or so others on a more ad hoc basis. The opposition is not believed to have deciphered a single code talker message in either world war.

Only the Navajo, with more code talkers than all other tribes combined, have become relatively well known, in part due to the Hollywood film Windtalkers. They received congressional recognition for their exploits in 2000, whereas the remaining tribes had to wait eight more years until a bill passed praising them for their dedication and valour. Honouring Native American code talkers is long overdue, the bill admitted. Pursuant to the legislation, a medal ceremony took place last November in Washington, D.C., with 33 tribes known to have had code-talking members in attendance. My regret, said Allen, is that none of the code talkers were alive from our [Choctaw] nation to see this moment, and none of their children were alive.