By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Printed in the November 2013 Issue of The Northeast Texan
The Ferme Forest, France. October, 1918.
James Edwards transmitted a coded message from the front lines, via telephone, to Solomon Louis. When the Germans failed to break this code, it turned the tide of World War I in the Americans’ favor. Though these men didn’t hold the rank of U.S. citizen, their indigenous language—which at the time was believed obsolete—was the first “Indian” dialect used by America to code messages.
Nineteen Choctaw men. The original Code Talkers.
Following is a memo sent by Colonel A. W. Bloor, the commander of the 142nd Infantry Division:
Headquarters 142nd Infantry, A.E.F.
January 23, 1919, A.P.O. No. 796
From: C.O. 142nd Infantry
To: The Commanding General 36th Division (Attention Capt. Spence)
Subject: Transmitting messages in Choctaw
1. In compliance with memorandum, Headquarters 36th Division, January 21, 1919, to C.O. 142nd Infantry, the following account is submitted.
In the first action of the 142nd Infantry at St. Etienne, it was recognized that of all the various methods of liaison the telephone presented the greatest possibilities. The field of rocket signals is restricted to a small number of agreed signals. The runner system is slow and hazardous. T.P.S. is always an uncertain quantity. It may work beautifully and again, it may be entirely worthless. The available means, therefore, for the rapid and full transmission of information are the radio, buzzer and telephone, and of these the telephone was by far the superior, — provided it could be used without let or hindrance, — provided straight to the point information could be given.
It was well understood however, that the German was a past master of “listening in” moreover, from St. Etienne to the Aisne we had traveled through a county netted with German wire and cables. We established P.C.’s in dugouts and houses, but recently occupied by him. There was every reason to believe every decipherable message or word going over our wires also went to the enemy. A rumor was out that our Division had given false coordinates of our supply dump, and that in thirty minutes the enemy shells were falling on the point. We felt sure the enemy knew too much. It was therefore necessary to code every message of importance and coding and decoding took valuable time.
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. Indians from the Choctaw tribe were chosen and one placed in each P.C.
The first use of the Indians was made in ordering a delicate withdrawal of two companies of the 2nd Bn. from Chufilly to Chardoney on the night of October 26th. 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.
After the withdrawal of the regiment to Louppy-le-Petit, a number of Indians were detailed for training in transmitting messages over the telephone. The instruction was carried on by the Liaison Officer Lieutenant Black. It had been found that the Indian’s vocabulary of military terms was insufficient. The Indian 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 and 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 and it is believed, had the regiment gone back into the line, fine results would have been obtained. We were confident the possibilities of the telephone had been obtained without its hazards.
A.W. Bloor, Colonel
According to tribal documents, there were nineteen Choctaw Code Talkers: Tobias Frazier, Victor Brown, Joseph Oklahombi, Otis Leader, Ben Hampton, Albert Billy, Walter Veach, Ben Carterby, James Edwards, Solomon Louis, Pete Maytubby, Mitchell Bobb, Calvin Wilson, Jeff Nelson, Joseph Davenport, George Davenport, Noel Johnson, Schlicht Billy and Robert Taylor.
Because the military swore them to secrecy, no one knew these men existed, or that they played a key role in ending World War I. Only in the past few years have these war heroes received the tribute they deserve. The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 honored Indian soldiers who used their languages to develop codes for the U.S. military during World Wars I and II.
I hope this article honors those within my tribe, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and those reading this that have served or are serving in our military. Yakoke, thank you.
Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer is a freelance writer and flash fiction master. Read more about her journey at www.SarahElisabethWrites.com.