Native American Code Talkers of World War I
The use of Native American languages for transmitting messages by the United States Armed Forces originated during World War I. American forces discovered that their communications were easily compromised through distance listening devices, tapping into telephone lines, and runners being killed or captured. In addition, the Germans easily broke codes based on English. Late in the war a number of U.S. officers appear to have independently realized and used Native Americans to send messages in their respective units. As an impromptu, unplanned tactic, no larger Armed Forces program existed for their use in 1918. The only groups for which the dates of when they used their languages are known are the Eastern Band Cherokee of North Carolina (October 8 or 9 to November 1918) and the Oklahoma Choctaw (October 26-28, 1918).
Eastern Band Cherokee
The earliest documented use of Native Americans as code talkers is the Eastern Band Cherokee Indians from North Carolina. During the Somme Offensive (September 29 - November 11, 1918) a group of Eastern Band Cherokee began to use their native language on October 8 or 9, 1918 for military communications in the 105th Field Artillery Battalion, 30th Infantry Division.
In France, 1st Lieutenant John W. Stanley, who had fifteen years experience as a telegraph operator, had requested and received a transfer from the 119th Infantry to the 105th Field Signal Battalion, Company B (Wire), in the Division Signal Corps. By October 6th or 7th, the 105th discovered that their messages sent in English were being intercepted by the Germans who were taking immediate counteractions, including artillery, almost as soon as the messages had been sent. Summoned to a meeting of the signal officers by the Division Signal Officer to discuss ways to counteract this problem Stanley proposed a solution to counter this communications problem. As Stanley (1931) later wrote,
[I] pointed out to the Division Signal officer that the old 1st N.C. Regiment which was split up at Camp Sevier, S.C. in 1917 and its personnel assigned to the 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments contained quite a number of Cherokee Indians which were now somewhere in the division, and that in my opinion, if a number of the most intelligent of them were placed as each telephone, and that they transmit all messages in their native tongue, I felt sure that even a battalion commander could use them in transmitting commands in perfect safety. The matter was taken up with the division commander, and the next day found every command post from brigade forward, including some company command posts, [with] a telephone with a Cherokee Indian beside it. Needless to say, there were no further messages intercepted by the enemy that we heard of... From then on until October 12, 1918, at which date I was ordered back to the United States as an instructor, the Cherokees were kept on the job with continued success, and I understand were used until the end of the war.
While several Cherokee are verified as serving in the 30th Division in France, there is currently no confirmation of any named individual to identify who served as code talkers.
The Choctaw are the best-documented group of World War I code talkers. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26 - November 11, 1918), as the A.E.F. took St. Etienne and continued into the Vaux-Champagne area they discovered that many communication lines had been left intact by the Germans retreating across the Aisne River. Following two failed attempts by the French, the 36th was brought up to take the remaining German position at Forest Ferme in an elevated peninsula of the Aisne. To ensure success Colonel Alfred Bloor, Commander of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, used a number of Choctaw to move troops, coordinate the attack, and send messages in their language throughout October 26-28th. Using Choctaw, a walking artillery barrage and attack caught the Germans completely off-guard, and the position was quickly overran and seized.
Following the relief of the 142nd from the front line late on October 28th and early on the 29th, the 36th were sent towards Paris. On November 3rd they arrived at Bar-le-Duc, about 120 miles east of Paris where they were attached to the American First Army and billeted near Louppy-le-Petit. There Lt. Templeton Black (Cheyenne) had eighteen enlisted men (presumably including the Choctaw who had used their language and additional members) and three non-commissioned officers detailed to him for training in transmitting messages. The initial experience at Forest Ferme had found that the Choctaw vocabulary of Anglo military terms was limited. During the brief period of training held at Louppy-le-Petit, eight days at most as the Armistice was signed on November 11th, a series of formally coded words was devised and used to convey coded telephone messages in Choctaw during training exercises. While some Choctaw terms were equivalent to Anglo counterparts, others did not exist and, as Bloor's report demonstrates, were quickly developed in a coded form of the Choctaw language to convey equivalents for Anglo military arms and organizational levels. Patrol became "many scouts," a grenade became known as a "stone," regiment became "tribe," casualties became "scalps," and 2nd Battalion became "two grains of corn." The insertion of these coded terms into the Choctaw language created a code within an unknown language, in short a form of double code. Colonel Bloor's letter specifically states that the Choctaws were unable to use the language again following the training at Louppy-le-Petit as the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, ending 'the war to end all wars'.
As Colonel Bloor (1919) recorded in France in February 1919,
While comparatively inactive at Vaux-Champagne, it was remembered that the regiment possessed a company of Indians. They spoke twenty-six different languages or dialects, only four or five of which were ever written. 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 regiment was fortunate in having two Indian officers who spoke several of the dialects. Indians from the Choctaw tribe were chosen and one placed in each P.C.
The first use of the Indians was made in ordering a delicate withdrawal of two companies of the 2nd Bn. [Battalion] from Chufilly to Chardeny on the night of October 26th. This movement was completed without mishap, although it left the Third Battalion, greatly depleted in previous fighting, without support. The Indians were used repeatedly on the 27th in preparation for the assault on Forest Farm [Ferme]. The enemy's complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages.
After the withdrawal of the regiment to Louppy-le-Petit, a number of Indians were detailed for training in transmitting messages over the telephone. The instruction was carried on by Liaison Officer Lieutenant [Templeton] Black. It had been found that the Indian's vocabulary of military terms was insufficient. The Indian [term] 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." It was found that the Indian tongues do not permit verbatim translation, but at the end of the short training period at Louppy-le-Petit, the results were very gratifying, and it is believed, had the regiment gone back into the line, fine results would have been obtained. We were confident that the possibilities of the telephone had been obtained without its hazards.
Colonel 142d Infantry
Numerous news articles referenced their use of the Choctaw language as a "code" in the war. Joseph K. Dixon photographed five of the Choctaw and Captain Elijah Whitt Horner at Camp Merritt, New Jersey, in 1919 as "The Choctaw Telephone Squad." The Choctaw language communicators helped set the precedent of using native American languages for secure military communications that would be expanded by other tribes in the Army and the Marines in World War II and that by 1944 would become known as "code talkers."
Three news releases and two oral history accounts from members of the World War II Comanche Code Talkers report of the use of the Comanche language for military communications in World War I in the 357th Infantry Regiment, 90th Infantry Division. The 357th and 358th infantry Regiments both contained large numbers of Indians from Oklahoma. The most specific document identifying Comanche in the 357th as using their native language for military communications as code talkers is a 1919 article in the Oklahoma City Times focusing on Calvin Atchavit of Walters, Oklahoma, and inferably other Comanches in the 90th. The article states,
...of recent date showed the picture of Calvin Atchavit, who has just returned from France with the 142nd Infantry. Calvin's picture is given here because he is one to whom the Belgian Government gave a War Cross in recognition of his service in talking over the phone during fighting times when the Huns were tapping the lines and trying to get the order of our Army. Calvin's Comanche tongue helped the Allied Army send messages which the Germans could not understand. We are glad that Calvin can be in the home land again.
This use of the Comanche language and award is also referenced in Atchavit's Card in the Card File Relating to Indians in World War I in the National Archives. Despite some typographical errors, his card reads,
ATAHHAVIT [sic], CALVIN, Kiowa Indian Draftee.
Record in File.
Wounded Oct. 22, 1918.
Was in battles of St. Mihiel, Returned to USA June 5, 1919.
The Oklahoma City Times published his picture and reported that the Belgian Govt. had given him a WAR CROSS, for talking over the lines when they were TRAPPED BY THE ENEMY, His Comache [sic] tongue helped him get messages across that were not understood by the enemy
Atchavit was Comanche, but from the Kiowa Agency in Oklahoma.
Other Comanche in the 357th include: George Clark (Co. A), Gilbert Pahdi Conwoop (Co. A), and Samuel Tabbytosevit. Albert Nahquaddy, Sr. served in the 165th Brigade Field Artillery. It is highly probable that some or all of these Comanche also participated in these communications. These men have been recognized as code talkers based on their proximity and this inference. Comparing the 357th's time in combat with dates of individual wounds and hospitalization, the Comanche language was likely used at either St. Mihiel and afterwards (September 12-24th), and / or during the Meuse-Argonne campaign (September 26 to November 11, 1918).
Lakota and Yankton Sioux
Although many Lakota and Yankton have been reported and recognized as World War I code talkers, there is very little documentation. A Stars and Stripes (1919) article and an American Indian magazine (1919) article mention the use of two Sioux (names and tribe omitted) in an artillery unit. Of those already recognized, a review of their military records, indicates that many of the Lakota reported as World War I code talkers did not serve overseas or see combat.
Cherokee historian Emmet Starr provides a brief reference to the use of Oklahoma Cherokees in World War I. According to Starr, while in combat in France, George Adair, “was taken from the firing line in France, and placed with other full-blood Cherokees in the telephone service, where they foiled the German 'listeners in' by repeating, receiving, and transmitting the military orders in the Cherokee language.” Starr includes a picture of Adair in his WW I Army uniform, and Adair's name appears in a list of sixty-eight Cherokee that served in Company E, 142nd Infantry, of the 36th Division in World War I. As Adair was a member of Company E, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division, and served during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, he likely spoke with some of the other Cherokee in Company E, which at one time contained sixty-eight Cherokee. No other individual identifications have been made.
Little is known regarding the use of the Cheyenne language. The earliest reference to Cheyenne using their native language to send and receive messages in World War I is from Britten. While there were some Cheyenne in the 36th Division, officers' reports mention only the use of the Choctaw. Lt. Templeton Black (Southern Cheyenne) and Lt. Ben Cloud (Northern Cheyenne) were involved with the training of a group of eighteen Choctaws in the 36th in forming code terms, however this occurred at Louppy-le-Petit, France, during the first week of November 1918. This occurred after the 36th had taken Forest Ferme on October 26-28, 1918, and had been relieved. The war ended before the Choctaw were able to use their language again and this training involved no speaking in Cheyenne by Black or Cloud. Another possibility may be that of Northern Cheyenne from Montana, who served in the Fortieth Division. The 158th Infantry Regiment contained a predominantly Indian company. To date no individual Cheyenne has been recognized as a code talker.
Little is known about the use of Osage. A review of service records in the National Archives demonstrates that nearly one hundred Osage served in the 28th, 32nd, 35th, 36th, 37th, 77th, 89th, and 90th divisions, with the largest concentration in the 36th. From an interview with two non-Indian World War I veterans, Pvt. Wendell Martin (Co. B, 11th Engineers, 36th Division) and Pvt. Alphonzo Bulz (Co. M, 143rd Infantry, 36th Division), Berry reports that Osage were used for telephone communications in Company M, 143rd Infantry Regiment, a unit also known to contain a considerable number of Indians from Oklahoma. To date, the only individual reported by the Osage to have served as a code talker has been Augustus Chouteau who served in the 36th Division. However, a photo of Pvt. Augustus Choteau and a summary of his military service, indicate that he never went overseas during WWI, "After receiving his military training at Camp Bowie, Texas, Company D, 1st Oklahoma Cavalry, 36th Division; transferred to 111th Ammunition Train; in regular service; served on the Mexican border; did not go overseas; at camp contracted the influenza, followed by pneumonia, which resulted in his death, Dec. 11, 1919. Other Osage are reported to have been enlisted from Carlisle Indian School into the U.S. Army and to have served in artillery and infantry units where they spoke with one another over telephones to call information back and forth about incoming rounds. These individuals have not been identified or confirmed.
John H. Longtail and Robert Big Thunder, cousins, were two of twenty-nine Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) who originally enlisted in the 128th Infantry Regiment of the 32nd Division in early 1918. Both men appear on the April 6, 1918 embarkation list for Company A, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division, sailing from Hoboken, New Jersey.
A 1919 issue of the Indian School Journal, reprinted from the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Sentinel, describes their service, “Like so many Indians in the war these men were used for scouts, snipers and telephone operators, and during their seven weeks in the front line trenches had many interesting and exciting experiences…Another place where they were invaluable was in transmitting telephone messages, where there was a possibility of messages being intercepted by Germans. In these cases the Indians would transmit the messages in their own tongue.” Both were wounded on June 21 in the Aisne Defensive Sector and recovered. Although the Indian School Journal reports this occurring at Chateau Thierry, their service records list it as occurring at “Bois de Belleau” (Belleau Wood, June 1-26, 1918), where the 3rd Division participated in and which correlates with the dates of their wounds. Big Thunder’s records also indicate he served at Chateau Thierry. Their use for military communications in June 1918 is the earliest dated use of Indian military communicators to date.
Ironically, the majority of Native American men who graciously used their language to help the U.S. Army in World War I had been through government-ran Indian boarding schools. These schools sought to assimilate Indians to mainstream American society, forbade the use of Native languages, and often used severe forms of corporal punishment on offenders. Their linguistic and cultural resilience constituted a unique contribution to the war effort.
The use of Native languages for secure communications in World War I resulted in two forms. Type I Native American Code Talking involved the use of native language with additional specially encoded vocabulary, which the Choctaw created near the end of the war. Type 2 Native American Code Talking involved only the use of everyday vernacular Native languages, but because they were unknown to the Germans, also worked effectively. Both types set a precedent for the development of similar systems in World War II.
Although these groups are still popularly believed to have been secret, dozens of news articles and military accounts - including interviews with high-ranking military officers and some of the code talkers themselves - ran from February 1919 through WW II. World War I code talkers received no official recognition until the late 1980s when the Choctaw and Comanche began recognizing their code talkers. Following the award of Gold and Silver Congressional medals to the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II in 2000-2001, other tribes began seeing recognition of their code talkers. Following a Senate Committee Hearing on the Contributions of Native American Code Talkers in American Military History (U.S. Senate 2004) research and lobbying resulted in the proposal of legislation to garner equal recognition for all Native American Code Talkers. On October 15, 2008, the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-420) was passed.
Following the design of individual tribal medals, each tribe received one Congressional Gold Medal and each identified code talker or their family received one silver Congressional Silver Medal at ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol and the National Museum of the American Indians on November 23, 2013. Native American Code Talkers have become iconic figures in 20th century America military history. Research on all code talkers continues.
Dr. William C. Meadows
Missouri State University
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
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