As we pause to celebrate our veterans, we would also do well to search out, remember, and do honor to those who played crucial roles in our country's victories; but who, because of their ethnicity, are all but forgotten. This includes, but is not limited to, the Choctaw Indian Code Talkers of World War I who delivered a service unique to only the Native American.
The war grew out of an incident that occurred on June 28, 1914, when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo.
Initially, the United States had no official plan to enter this war but was drawn in through events that included Germany's sinking of the Lusitania, on which 128 of 197 Americans on board lost their lives on May 7, 1915. Tensions heightened when German Ambassador Berstorff stated that submarine warfare would continue and severed diplomatic relations with the U.S.
When British intelligence informed President Woodrow Wilson of Germany's intent to draw Mexico and Japan into attacking the U.S. to eliminate her involvement in Europe, Wilson requested permission from Congress, and America entered the war on April 6, 1917.
The Germans proved to be as tough and militaristic as reputed; for even as the war drew to its conclusion, America's top military minds were constantly undone by spies who continued to intercept telephone calls that provided the locations of U.S. troops and supplies.
Trench codes worked for only a time before the Germans deciphered them. One in four U.S. messengers between camps were captured by the enemy. Voice scrambling was still a technology far into the future. America was badly in need of a plan and heroes to successfully implement it. She found it in a U.S. Army Captain...
and nineteen Choctaw Indians!
At the start of the war, the U.S. did not yet recognize Native Americans as citizens and, as such, they were not even allowed to vote. The full conferring of citizenship did not take place until a decade later in 1924. Yet, in the proud warrior tradition, an estimated 12,000 Native American Indians stepped forward to serve. About 600 were Oklahoma Choctaw and Cherokee.
Such an action cannot be fully appreciated without reiterating the tragic chapter in United States history when Native people, as official policy, were slaughtered on a genocidal scale largely for their lands and abundant resources while their cultures were
Cloaked in the mantra of "manifest destiny," the exploitation and demonization
of the Native American was further spurred by a slogan attributed to General Philip
Sheridan in 1869: The only good Indian is a dead Indian. It was a time when America, in its desire to expand, recognized only marginally the rights of indigenous peoples.
Yet, from the surviving remnant that now comprises only 0.9 percent of the national population, the Native American (with a U.S. military service record dating back to the
Revolutionary War) has emerged as the single culture with the greatest per capita of military servicepersons in America and, in fact, provided a unique service in both great wars that was crucial to this country's victories.
During the Meuse-Argonne campaign, the final push of the Germans toward the end of WWI, the story goes that when company commander, U.S. Army Captain Lawrence, overheard soldiers Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb chatting in their own Choctaw language, he wondered, What if the U.S. employed indigenous tongues as code? After all, they were quite complex, spoken by very few, and difficult to learn.
He discovered that there were a total of eight Choctaw Indians in his company: besides Solomon Lewis and Mitchell Bobb, there were also Ben Carterby, Robert Taylor, Jeff Nelson, Pete Maytubby, James Edwards, and Calvin Wilson.
The Choctaw language codes were quickly utilized and proved so effective the army expanded to eleven additional Choctaw talkers: Albert Billy, Victor Brown, Joseph Davenport, George Davenport, Tobias Frazer, Ben Hampton, Noel Johnson, Otis Leader, Joseph Oklahombi, Walter Veach, and Schlicht Billy.
Recognized as the first Native Americans to use their languages as code in the U.S. military, at least one of the highly trained men was assigned to handle telephone communications at the headquarters of each field company. Not only were all crucial calls spoken in Choctaw, the men also translated the conversations into English for their commanders.
In addition, they wrote field orders for
the couriers who took messages between camps. Even when some of these
messengers were captured, German cryptographers were never able to decipher the
The plan proved a winner for the U.S., for within twenty-four hours of its implementation, all counterattacks on Americans and their ammunition compounds ceased. Within seventy-two hours, the Germans retreated.
Four of the Choctaw warriors received the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration awarded for bravery in combat, while others received the Church War Cross for gallantry.
Solely because of their ethnicity, however, throughout their lifetime, the U.S. military never recognized them for their contributions that helped to ensure victory when America's sovereignty was at stake.
Solomon Lewis, the last remaining WWI Choctaw code talker, died sometime between 1982-1983; and sadly, the first recognition, presented posthumously, did not take place until 1986, when then-Chief Hollis E. Roberts presented their families the Choctaw Nation Medal of Valor. The names of these Native veterans are also engraved on a granite monument at the entrance of the Choctaw Capitol grounds.
The indigenous language strategy proved so successful, in WWII, it expanded to include the more widely known Navajo Code Talkers. They were equally effective, and like the Choctaw, their codes were never deciphered by the enemy.
Other Native languages were also used in WWII, including those of the Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Chippewa, Creek, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Seminole, Sioux dialects from the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota divisions, Oneida, Pawnee, Sac and Fox, Osage and Winnebago.
But the greatest irony, perhaps, in America's history of omission in honoring its minority military heroes, grew out of the boarding school era, which roughly spanned the 1880s and peaked in the 1970s. School-age Native children sometimes as young as age five were required by government mandate to attend them, and many of them would not see their families again until they were young adults.
This misguided attempt to assimilate and "Americanize" the Native Indian was summed up in their slogan, Kill the Indian, Save the Man. To accomplish such a goal, the curriculum of these schools was structured to reflect the Euro-culture and erase all vestiges of Native cultures.
So strong was the attempt to eradicate Indian languages, children were severely punished if they conversed in them—an irony, since the languages that the U.S. government sought so diligently to eradicate became key instruments in this country's winning of two world wars. It was only through persistent petitioning that the official
honoring of the Native Code Talkers was finally enacted into law in 2008.
A favorite quote from Scripture (Romans 13:7 ) instructs, "Render, therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due...honour to whom honour."
Roy Cook (Opata-Oodham), psychological warfare specialist and Green Beret Special Forces veteran, also provides a fitting summation on his website: "Native People are
in fact defenders of two sovereigns—their individual tribal nations and the United States of America, with proud service to both."
Postscript: After the long battle for recognition of all Native Code Talkers, of the three soldiers represented in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, to date, not one likeness represents the Native American.
See also the Bindings blog, A Memorial Day first for Lori Ann Piestewa.
K.B. Schaller, journalist, novelist , conference speaker, is author of Gray Rainbow Journey (National Best Books Award Winner, USA Book News; Winner, President's Book Awards, Florida Publisher's Assn., YA Fiction) and Journey by the Sackcloth Moon (both OakTara). She lives in South Florida,where she is currently writing a third novel in the Journey series. http://www.kbschaller.com/