Choctaw Code Talkers in WWI
By Constance Potter
"Captain Horner detailed eight educated Choctaws for the work. They served efficiently in the experiment and it was a success. The use of Indian tongues certainly provides nearly absolute safe code for important intelligence transmission.”
-- Capt. E.W. Horner, Co. E., 142d Infantry
Although most people associate Indian code breakers with the Navajo of World War II, military intelligence used Native American languages for the first time during World War I. The Choctaw are considered the first code talkers, however Cherokee, Cheyenne, Comanche, Mohawk, Pawnee, Ponca, Sac and Fox (Meskwaki), and Sioux (Lakota and Dakota dialect) also served as code talkers. [nmai.si.edu/static/patriot-nations/world-wars.htm#ww1]
Although the National Archives does not have a file specifically listing the names of code talkers, it holds administrative files that explain the background. (Record Group 120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), 1917-1923, Entry 441, Correspondence, reports, and other records relating to American Indians serving with the AEF, 1917-1925.)
January 23, 1919, Bloor to Spence
Since the first week of October 1918, Major General Smith’s 36th Division, along with French troops, had continued to skirmish with the Germans on the Champagne front. It had become evident that the Germans, expert in deciphering messages, had been listening in on the American messages. The Americans needed a way to communicated without the Germans knowing their plans.
In a memo “Transmitting messages in Choctaw” to Captain Spence (Commanding General 36th Division), A.W. Bloor, Colonel, 142nd Infantry, Commanding, described how the use of Indians as code talkers started. Bloor realized that among the men of the 142d Infantry, there was a company of Native Americans that comprised twenty-six different languages or dialects, only four or five of which had been written. Bloor wrote, “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. [post command].” Bloor continued:
The first use of the Indians was made in ordering a delicate withdrawal of two companies of the 2nd. Bn. from Chufilly to Chardeny on the night of October 26. 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. The enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages.
March 2, 1919, Morrissey to Eddy
Col. Bloor wrote that the Indian’s vocabulary did not always include military terms. In the administrative files at the beginning of the series is a memo about “Terms used by Indians over telephone” from William J. Morrissey, Lt.-Col., 142nd Infantry to Lieut. John R. Eddy, Historical Section. Lt. Col. Morrisey noted the words for which there was no term in the Native language.
Morrisey ends the memo with a list “is written from memory but I believe it is approximately correct.”
|1st Battalion||1 Grain corn|
|2nd Battalion||2 Grains corn|
|3rd Battalion||3 Grains of corn|
|Machine Gun||Little gun shoot fast|
For example, there is no word in Choctaw for “grenade,” so they used the word “tali,” which translated into “stone.” (See newsok.com/article/3313476).
1st Lieut. Lucien B. Coppinger, Inf., Aide to Maj. Gen. Smith, Commanding General, 36th Division, further explained:
The Choctaw language was used to good advantage as a code. The country through which the Division passed had lately been occupied by the enemy and the telephone and telegraph wires were found laying on the ground. Owing to this condition it was an easy matter for the Germans to tap our wires. To combat this, we took several Indians and used them in transmitting orders by telephone in the Choctaw language. The Colonel of the 142nd Infantry would give his orders to the Indian in English, who would translate them into Choctaw for transmission to the man at the other end of the wire, who would retranslate the messages into English. In this way all danger of having our messages intercepted by the enemy was obviated.
Summary of incidents and comments recently gathered evidencing the superior fitness of American Indians over the average soldier for scout service (no date)
Capt. E.W. Horner, Co. E., 142d Infantry, stated that:
[T]here were Indians representing fourteen tribes in his company. He was called upon by Division G-2 to furnish if possible a number of Indians speaking the same language and capable of working telephones within the Division, the idea being to maintain secret transmission of intelligence. Captain Horner detailed eight educated Choctaws for the work. They served efficiently in the experiment and it was a success. The use of Indian tongues certainly provides nearly absolute safe code for important intelligence transmission.
The code talkers were part of the 36th Division, and the majority appear to have been in the 142nd Infantry. The 36th Division, a National Guard unit, was composed primarily of troops from Oklahoma and Texas, states with large Native American populations.
Although there is a list online of 19 Choctaw code talkers, there is no separate file for code talkers among the records of the AEF. Nor are the names of the individual code talkers mentioned in the administrative files.
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Constance Potter is a retired reference archivist. She worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.