In World War II, a group of Navajo Indians enlisted with the Marines for the purpose of developing unique communications codes. These Marines came to be known as the ‘Code-talkers’; soldiers who developed signals and messages based on native languages with English counterparts that when translated spelled out specific messages. The code-talkers became famous for their ingenuity in adopting their native language to military code, but were by no means the first. During World War I, American units with various Native American soldiers used their own languages to communicate between the lines and send messages to headquarters. Within a few months of combat, Choctaw Indian code-talkers developed and implemented a rudimentary system for communicating and translating vital battlefield information.
Securing lines of communication are vital in war and on every battlefield. If the enemy broke this security, they can quickly learn of impending attacks, logistical situations, and thwart their opponents at every opportunity. German radio operators and code-breakers were adept in their monitoring and deciphering of enemy communications. Germans broke numerous American codes after entering the war and officers continuously looked for innovative methods that would make their codes impossible to crack. Fortunately for the American Expeditionary Force, Native American languages became a valuable asset that pioneered an innovative communications practice.
Choctaw Indians regularly spoke in their native languages within their group. Colonel A.W. Bloor of the 142nd Infantry Regiment overheard a conversation between two Choctaws and realized something extraordinary; if he couldn’t understand what these Indians were saying, then the Germans would have an arduous time trying to decipher messages, neutralizing their mastery of English in breaking Allied codes. Native American languages possessed uniqueness in that they are not typically written down and due to geographic distance, were relatively unknown to Europeans. Bloor immediately recognized the value of utilizing these languages as a new communication tool:
‘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.’
Bloor utilized these Choctaw soldiers to develop a military code using their specific dialects. An obstacle however was much of the US military vocabulary did not have a corresponding word in Choctaw dialects. This forced them to improvise certain words that related to their messages. Bloor described this process in a report to his commanding general’s headquarters:
‘It had been found that the Indian’s vocabulary of military terms was insufficient. The Indian word 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, 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…the enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages’
Bloor cited instantaneous results with the adoption of the Choctaw codes. German code-breakers who routinely deciphered American messages were stumped by the innovative use of Choctaw dialects. Repeated surprises by AEF assaults confirmed that Germans could not understand the new Native American codetalkers. Captured German soldiers later stated that the use of Native American languages confused them and could not gain any useful information.
The Choctaw Code was integral during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and is widely credited for securing small victories over the course of the battle. Despite their achievements in France, the Choctaw code-talkers were largely forgotten after the end of the war. The prominence of Navajo code-talkers in World War II overshadowed much of the Choctaw’s former accomplishments in encoding military messages. In the 1980s, they received posthumous honors from both the Choctaw Nation and France for their contributions and in 2008, President George Bush signed the Code Talkers Recognition Act (Public Law 110-420) which posthumously recognized every codetalker that served in the military during World War I and them a Congressional Gold Medal for the Choctaw nation. These medals are now retained by the Smithsonian Institution, with silver and bronze duplicates held by private individuals. The innovations by these Choctaw soldiers not only saved thousands of soldiers’ lives, but pushed the military to look at Native Americans in a new light, recognizing their valuable contributions as both soldier and citizen.
[Block-quoted text extract from; Letter from the Commanding Officer of the 142nd Infantry to the Command General of the 36th Division, stating how messages would be transmitted during World War I in Choctaw as the enemy “could not decipher the messages”, January 23rd, 1919, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I, 1848-1942), National Archives and Records Administration]