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History: Choctaw soldiers used language to send secret codes

Filed Under: National
More on: choctaw, code talkers, languages, oklahoma, wars

Choctaw Nation Code Talkers. Photo from Choctaw Code Talkers Association

The History Network explains how members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma served as Code Talkers during World War I:
One main problem for the Allies was the Germans’ ability to listen in on their communications and to break their codes, which were generally based on either European languages or mathematical progressions. “We couldn’t keep anything secret,” Allen said. An apocryphal story spread around that a German once interrupted a U.S. Signal Corps member sending a message to taunt his use of code words. Sending out human runners proved equally ineffective, since about one in four were captured or killed. And other methods of communications, such as color-coded rockets, electronic buzzers and carrier pigeons, were too limiting, too slow, too unreliable or a combination thereof.

Soon after the Meuse-Argonne campaign got underway, a company commander in the 36th Division reportedly happened to overhear two of his soldiers conversing in Choctaw. In a flash, he recognized the military potential of the language, essentially unknown to the Germans, and persuaded his superiors to post a Choctaw speaker at various field company headquarters. On October 26, 1918, the Choctaws were put to use for the first time as part of the withdrawal of two companies from the front. Having completed this mission without mishap, they then played a major role the following two days in an attack on a strongly fortified German position called Forest Ferme. “The enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages,” Colonel A.W. Bloor later wrote in an official report. The tide of battle turned within 24 hours, according to Bloor, and within 72 hours the Allies were on full attack.

At least 19 Choctaws subsequently completed a short training session. Lacking the words for certain modern-day military terms, they used “big gun” for artillery, “little gun shoot fast” for machine gun, “stone” for grenade and “scalps” for casualties, among other substitutions, thereby becoming true code talkers rather than simply communications operators speaking a little-known language. “They create these code words, but they don’t actually get to use them because the war ends on the 11th [of November],” Meadows said. Even so, Colonel Bloor described the results of the training session as “very gratifying.” “It is believed, had the regiment gone back into the line, fine results would have been obtained,” he declared. “We were confident the possibilities of the telephone had been obtained without its hazards.”

Get the Story:
World War I’s Native American Code Talkers (The History Network 5/29)

Related Stories:
Editorial: Honor the sacrifices of Navajo Code Talker Tom Jones (5/19)
Choctaw Nation soldiers served as Code Talkers in world wars (5/19)

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