Ask Rufus: Choctaw heroes of World War I
By Rufus Ward
via The Dispatch newspaper (MS) web site
Recently there has been a revival in interest in the 2002 movie Windtalkers, the story of Navajo code talkers during World War II. The Navajo code talkers were true heroes and were honored by congress for their role in the Pacific campaign. Overlooked in the recognition of the Navajo were the code talkers of many other Indian nations including the first code talkers, the Choctaw.
An article in the October 30,1919, Army newspaper Stars and Stripes was headlined “Yank Indian Was Heap Big Help In Winning The War.” It told the story of the first code talkers, who were 19 Choctaw Indians. Though some of the article’s references to Indians were inappropriate stereotypes, the intent of the article was clearly to recognize the heroic and important contributions of Indians, especially the Choctaws, serving in World War I. Beneath that headline was a paragraph headed “Choctaw Code Fooled Boche” (Boche is a disparaging term used for German soldiers during WWI).
The Stars and Stripes article described what it called the “Greatest Mystery of War.” It told of the fighting around St. Etienne during October 1918. There the thickets, swamps and woods were filled with the telegraph and telephone lines of American units. American military communications during WWI were usually telephone wires that were laid in the woods between units. The Germans realized this and sent small patrols into the American lines at night to tap into what was an American communications switchboard.
At first it was a great success for German Army intelligence units. U.S. officers knew their commutations were compromised but were unable to find a code the Germans could not break. Then an American officer heard two Choctaws in his unit speaking in Choctaw. He realized that little known language might be a perfect code.
The Stars and Stripes reported: “But the Americans, after some little delay, continued to use their telephone lines, and the discomfited Boche on the other end of a tapped wire listened in vain, scratched his thick, square poll in amazement, and swore … either the ‘verdammter’ Americans were drunker than fiddlers or else the code they were using was a gift from Herr Gott Himself.”
That strange code was described by the Stars and Stripes: “The code was nothing more than Choctaw — plain, simple, old-fashioned, ordinary, catch-as-catch-can, everyday Choctaw.” The paper went on to tell the story of how the Choctaw Code fooled the Germans:
“There was a Choctaw Indian at the P.C. who listened to the order given him by an American officer, and then repeated it, in Choctaw, to a fellow-tribesman at the other end of the wire, at the front; and this Indian translated it for the American officer who stood beside him. Shades of Prince Bismarck! Everything else had the Kaiser taken into consideration when he sprinted into the late unpleasantness, but he had failed to teach his soldiers or officers Choctaw.”
Read the entire article on The Dispatch web site here:
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