October 26, 1918 Speaking in Code

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the code talk emerging from World War 1, based on the language of the Choctaw.

Between 1942 and 1945, “code talkers” of the Navajo Nation took part in every assault conducted by the United States Marine Corps. From Guadalcanal to Tarawa, Peleliu to Iwo Jima, Navajo code talkers served with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater, of World War 2.

Theirs was a language with no alphabet or symbols, a language with such complex syntax and tonal qualities as to be unintelligible to the non-speaker.  The military code based on such a language proved unbreakable in WWII.  Japanese code breakers never got close.

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the code talk emerging from World War 1, based on the language of the Choctaw.

The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Late in 1917, Colonel A. W. Bloor was serving in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment.  This was a Texas outfit, constituted in May of that year and including a number of Oklahoma Choctaws.

Choctaw code talkers

By now the Allies had learned the hard way, that many among the German adversary spoke excellent English.  German code breakers had intercepted and broken several English-based codes. 

Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying.  If he didn’t understand their conversation he thought, no German could possibly have a clue.

The first test under combat conditions took place on October 26, 1918, as two companies of the 2nd Battalion performed a “delicate” withdrawal from Chufilly to Chardeny, in the Champagne sector.  One captured German officer avowed the Choctaw code to have been a complete success.  We were “completely confused by the Indian language”, he said, “and gained no benefit whatsoever” from wiretaps.

Choctaw soldiers were placed in multiple companies of infantry.  Messages were transmitted via telephone, radio and runner, many of whom were themselves Native Americans.

The Choctaw would improvise when their language lacked the proper word or phrase.  When describing artillery, they used the words for “big gun”.  Machine guns were “little gun shoot fast”.

The Choctaw themselves didn’t use the term “Code Talker”, that wouldn’t come along until WWII.  At least one member of the group, Tobias W. Frazier, described what he did as, “talking on the radio”.  Of the 19 who served in WWI, 18 were native Choctaw from southeast Oklahoma.  The last was a native Chickasaw. 

Youngest of the group was Benjamin Franklin Colbert, Jr., the son of Benjamin Colbert Sr., one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” of the Spanish American War.  Born September 15, 1900 in the Durant Indian Territory, he was 16 the day he enlisted.

Joseph Oklahombi
Joseph Oklahombi

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name means “man killer” in the Choctaw language.    

Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed.  Oklahombi’s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded by French Marshall Philippe Pétain, tells the story:  “Under a violent barrage, [Pvt. Oklahombi] dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man’s land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades“.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts report that some 250 Germans occupied the position, and that Oklahombi killed 79 of them before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender. 

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

choctawwarmemorial

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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