Untold stories: Rediscovering the U.S. Army’s code talkers

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Live
Wearing both Army uniforms and traditional garb, Comanche code talkers of the 4th Signal Company, 4th Infantry Division pose for a photo during World War II. Thirteen of these men landed on Utah Beach in Normandy during D-Day. A code they created based on their native language saved countless lives during World War II. Together with 32 other tribes, the Comanche will be honored for their service as code talkers in a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony Nov. 20, 2013 at the U.S. Capitol. (U.S. Army Signal Corps photo)

Wearing both Army uniforms and traditional garb, Comanche code talkers of the 4th Signal Company, 4th Infantry Division pose for a photo during World War II. Thirteen of these men landed on Utah Beach in Normandy during D-Day. A code they created based on their native language saved countless lives during World War II. Together with 32 other tribes, the Comanche will be honored for their service as code talkers in a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony Nov. 20, 2013 at the U.S. Capitol. (U.S. Army Signal Corps photo)

Their land had been stolen for centuries, their ancestors systematically killed off by settlers and disease and even their new government as they were pushed onto smaller and smaller tracts of land. They were enemies of that government, the focus of many brutal battles. As children, they had been rounded up and forced into missionary-run boarding schools with one goal: to eradicate their cultures and languages.

And then their government went to war with much bigger enemies. The government asked them for help: Would they use the same languages the government had tried to destroy to help the same Army that had been their enemy only a generation or two before?

They answered “yes” by the hundreds. It was still their country and it was their land and they wanted to fight for it. They were happy to serve, Phyllis Wahahrockah-Tasi, the executive director of the Comanche National Museum and Center, said: “It was the warrior spirit that we … continue to have. We just billed it as an honor. … We were always warriors and that we carried this tradition on in the United States military. They still had that sense of pride.”

Some of them became famous, passing into popular culture thanks to a major motion picture about their World War II service, but while the Marines’ Navajo code talkers might have been the largest group, they were far from the first Native American tribe to turn their language into a code.

That honor goes to 18 Choctaw men of the 36th Infantry Division who were serving in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during the closing days of World War I. By late 1918, the Germans had deciphered every Allied code, they tapped almost every telephone and radio line and they killed or captured one out of every four runners the American Expeditionary Force would send between units on the front.

“It was remembered that the regiment possessed a company of Indians,” Col. A.W. Bloor, commander of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, wrote in a memo to the 36th Inf. Div. commander in January 1919. “They spoke 26 different languages or dialects, only four or five of which were ever written. There was hardly one chance in a million that Fritz (the Germans) would be able to translate these dialects, and the plan to have these Indians transmit telephone messages was adopted.”

Most reports give the credit for the idea to Capt. Lawrence, a company commander who happened to overhear Cpl. Solomon Louis and Pfc. Mitchell Bobb speaking in Choctaw. Because the Choctaw language didn’t have words for many military terms, they had to develop a vocabulary and soon, an actual code. For example, artillery became “big gun” and machine gun became “little gun shoot fast.” Battalions were indicated by one, two and three grains of corn.

Bloor credited the new code talkers with helping two companies from the 142nd safely withdraw from the front line at Saint Etienne, France, the night of Oct. 26, 1918, and for a surprise attack that led to the capture of Forest Ferme the next day. He said, “The enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages. … The results were very gratifying.”

The Germans were in retreat within 72 hours of the Comanche code’s debut. Other units soon began to use Native American Soldiers in the same fashion, although very little is known about their service, according to William Meadows, a professor at the Missouri State University and the author of “The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II.”

The Army remembered how effective the codes had been in combat as America’s entry into World War II started to look ever more inevitable in 1940 and 1941. According to Meadows, the Army first recruited 17 Oneida-Chippewa in the fall of 1940, followed by 17 Comanche and eight Meskwaki over the next few months and eight Hopi in 1943. (The Marines did not begin recruiting Navajo code talkers until April 1942.) While small groups of Soldiers from other tribes would go on to use their native languages for secure communications throughout the war, the Army Signal Corps specifically trained Soldiers from these four tribes in field communication, to be wire linemen and operators, teletype operators, switchboard operators, radio operators and motor messengers as well as code talkers. They’re the only known tribes to use formal codes based on their languages in Army service during World War II.

Because of the ad hoc nature of many code talkers’ service, Meadows said there’s no way to know exactly how many served or every campaign in which they fought. Together, the Army code talkers definitely served in three separate theaters, however, with the Meskwaki in North Africa, the Hopi in the Pacific and the Comanche in Europe.

Like the Choctaw, their codes included descriptive terms for military technology, such as the Comanche tutsahkuna’ tawo’i’ (sewing machine gun) for machine gun, wakaree’e (turtle) for tank and Po’sa taiboo’ (crazy white man) for Adolf Hitler. The Comanche eventually encoded about 250 different military terms, and to further confuse the Germans, later created their own alphabet to spell out names and places. (Comanche had never been written down and so lacked an alphabet.) For example, they used saddi, Comanche for dog, to represent the English letter D. Although there were reports of German and Japanese anthropologists studying Native American languages before the war, these codes were never broken. They were also fast.

“To encrypt messages by machines and send them and decode them … sometimes took, depending on the length of the message, two to four and a half hours to do this,” Meadows said. “The code talker could get on the phone and it’s as fast as I talking to you. … Even if people are listening to us, we’re not worrying about it.”

The Comanche, who served with the 4th Signal Company, 4th Infantry Division, are the best known Army code talkers. Thirteen landed on Utah Beach in Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and the following day. Wahahrockah-Tasi, a distant niece of two of the code talkers – Cpl. Charles Chibitty and Pfc. Larry Saupitty – said that many of the Soldiers were related and enlisted together. Chibitty and Saupitty, for example, were first cousins.

Chibitty, who was considered the last Comanche code talker when he died in 2005, told the American Forces Press Service in 2002 that he had been to Indian boarding school in the 1920s, where he was punished if he was “caught talking Indian. I told my cousin (Saupitty) that they’re trying to make little white boys of us.” He found his new job rather ironic: “Now they want us to talk Indian.”

All but one of the Comanche code talkers had attended Fort Sill Indian School in Lawton, Okla., which did have one advantage, according to Wahahrockah-Tasi: It taught them how to march. In fact, they could begin creating their own code and training with radios and signals and Morse code much faster than normal because boarding school had already taught them fundamental military skills.

One of her favorite family stories actually involves training. “Their sergeant dropped them off at a beach and told them they needed to learn how to swim,” she said. “When he came back, they were swimming very well, actually floating on their backs having a good old, merry time. So when they got out of the water, he said, ‘You guys learned to swim fast.’ One of the code talkers, Larry, told him, ‘You never asked if we already knew how to swim.’”

Those swimming skills became important during the D-Day landings. The 4th Inf. Div. had been tasked with meeting 82nd and 101st Airborne Soldiers who had parachuted into Normandy the night before, but elements of the division landed about 2,000 yards south of the designated landing point. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. turned to Saupitty, who happened to be his driver and orderly, and ordered him to report that they had arrived, albeit at the wrong location. He didn’t want the Germans to figure out where they were.

As the day wore on, the 4th Inf. Div. encountered stiffer resistance on Utah beach, which is reflected in one of Chibitty’s messages: “Five miles to the right of the designated area and five miles inland, the fighting is fierce and we need help.” After landing and while under heavy fire, the Comanche, as signal Soldiers, then had to string wires on the beachhead.

According to Meadows, Comanche code talkers served in France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany, including the liberation of Paris and the battles of St. Lo, Hurtgen Forest and Bastogne. They survived the Battle of the Bulge and helped assault the Siegfried Line, where a Choctaw Soldier and sometime code talker, 2nd Lt. Schlicht Billy, became the first American to capture a German pillbox. They continued to use their code throughout this advance, probably saving countless lives. For example, another message Chibitty remembered sending was: “A turtle is coming down the hedgerow. Get that stovepipe and shoot him.” This meant an enemy tank was coming and the unit on the other end of the line should prepare to shoot him with a bazooka.

Despite high casualty rates in the 4th Inf. Div., the Comanche code talkers, who were scattered in two-man teams throughout the division, all survived the war, although several were wounded. Saupitty was actually hit by two different shells and seriously wounded in the head, lung and arm shortly after D-Day in the fierce French hedgerow battles. After his unit found him an hour and a half later, he was sent back to England to recover and was unable to return to his unit until shortly before war’s end. According to Wahahrockah-Tasi, Saupitty even wrote down the place he was wounded on a Nazi flag he acquired.

After the war, they returned home to the typical parades and to a traditional powwow. They didn’t talk about their service, however. Wahahrockah-Tasi said that as a people, the Comanche are “brought up to be humble and not boastful.” Her grandfather would talk about how Chibitty and Saupitty were great war heroes, but other than that, it was really just something to pass along in family and tribal lore.

Bessie Wahnee, the widow of Pfc. Ralph Wahnee, said her husband never once mentioned the war. They had actually been in touch on and off throughout World War II, finally marrying in 1945, years after they met at a dance hall outside the then-Camp Gordon, Ga., when she was just 14. She knew most of his friends from the war, but none of them ever talked about their service either, or if they did, they didn’t talk about it in English. They always just had a good time. Her husband didn’t even open up when he got a letter from the French government that said it wanted to honor the code talkers.

“I didn’t know what code talkers were or anything like that,” Wahnee said. “I guess I must have made a comment like ‘That’d be wonderful if they deserved it,’ or something like that and just let it go. It never even dawned on me what the implications were or what it would become.”

Wahnee finally heard the full story in the early 2000s, decades after her husband had died. She heard the Army had sworn the men to secrecy in case it ever needed the code again. “I was just really mouth wide open, amazed,” she said. “It just has to soak in. It still is trying to soak in.”

Navajo code talkers were honored with Congressional Gold Medals in 2001, but code talkers from other tribes were largely forgotten, although many have been honored at tribal and state levels, and even in some cases by France.

That will change Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, when Congress will award Congressional Gold Medals to 33 tribes whose members are known to have served as code talkers in both World Wars, both formally and informally. They include not only the Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi, Meskwaki and Chippewa-Oneida, but also the Kiowa, the Crow, the Cherokee, the Apache and several Sioux nations. Medals will be unique to each tribe. In addition, more than 200 surviving code talkers and family members of the deceased will receive silver medals. A second ceremony will be held at a later date to honor additional tribes, which Meadows said he learns about all the time. Often, he explained, a couple of Soldiers were asked to use their language one or two times. As a result, there’s very little documentation.

The ceremony has been in the making for 20 years, he added. “I’m thrilled to death and I’m not even getting a medal,” he said. “I’m immensely happy for them.” He wishes more code talkers were alive to attend the ceremony. “But … this will be treasured by those families in particular and then those tribes. … This is something that will endure in their culture and ethnic heritage, and that’s priceless.”

“This is the greatest thing that they can do for all of the tribes that used their language in the service of the country,” Wahnee said of the medal she will accept on her late husband’s behalf. “I am so proud of each and every one of them … and I’m so thankful that I’m still alive and able to see this happening. I’m just so thrilled, thrilled.

“I know that they, each and every one of them, would be proud of the fact that what they did made a big effort in ending the war and not having so many people killed. I think they would all be very, very proud of that.”

  • Bertha Lee Polk-Frassrand

    God bless all of the American Indians for their services to the United States and all the people who live here………….

  • Beth

    Thank you all for your service.

  • Judy Pannell Terry

    Charles Chibitty was a nice and honorable man and our family was blessed to have known him….

  • trish64012

    Finally the story has been told!!

  • Malcolm J. Brenner

    I knew about the Navajo Code Talkers, but never about the Choctaws and others who served in the Army. Brave and intelligent men, with more patriotism than most!

  • Tom Sanderson

    this is a very interesting story of american indians and their involvement in the wars