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Choctaw code talkers: Oklahoma's unsung heroes

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Nuchi Nashoba, president of the Choctaw Code Talkers Association, describes the medals' design.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – In October 1918 the Americans were losing World War I, the Great War, when 19 men from Oklahoma’s Choctaw Nation set foot in southern France to fight for a country that did not even recognize them as citizens.

They hailed from places like Wright City, Oak Hill, Lester and Hochatown in southeast Oklahoma, and many came from the Armstrong Academy near Durant where they were told not to speak their native Choctaw language, and were sometimes beaten for it.

Solomon Louis, an orphan at the school, saw his classmates join the Army to fight the Germans, and being 17 and underage, he lied to the government, told recruiters he was 18, and joined up himself. Before he left, however, he asked another orphan, a young girl named Mary, to marry him. He wanted to make sure she was taken care of if something happened to him in a strange land.

The Choctaws arrived in southern France on Oct. 3, and although they were to have two more weeks of training, they found themselves on the front lines just three days later.

The war wasn’t going well. The Germans were able to tap into the American Army’s phone lines and learn the locations of the Allied forces. Codes were easily broken and Germany was poised to claim victory.

One night, several of the Choctaw men were sitting around speaking their native language when a lieutenant walked by and overheard the strange tongue. He had an idea.

In two years, America will recognize the 100th anniversary of World War I, and as part of that, the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma will recognize the service of 19 World War I veterans and four World War II veterans whose valiant service helped the Allied Forces win the war.

They didn’t do it with guns or strategy, but with language. Although Native Americans were discouraged from speaking their own language, the Choctaw soldiers who volunteered to serve their country were able to develop an unbreakable code that eventually turned the tides of war.

Nuchi Nashoba, president of the Choctaw Code Talkers Association, is on a mission to ensure that the men not only receive their honor they are due, but that Americans everywhere know the story of 19 men who developed a code that the Germans couldn’t crack.

“My goal is to bring honor to these men by doing things like getting the word out,” said Nashoba, whose great-grandfather was one of the original Choctaw code talkers. “These 19 men went to war before they were even considered citizens of the United States. They were all promised medals, but they never received them. The medals for their service were given three years ago.”

Now, Nashoba wants to share their story.

Uncovering the code

Even as the war raged and the Choctaw Code Talkers helped the Allied Forces by developing a code based on the Choctaw language, schools in Oklahoma were stressing the importance of English and banning the native language. The irony of a banned language being used to win the Great War was not lost on the soldiers.

James Edwards of Oak Hill chose eight other Choctaw men who spoke the native language fluently to help develop the code.

They used Choctaw words to relay positions and information to the Allies. Second Battalion was “tanch nihi tuklo,” or “two grains of corn.” Ammunition was “uski naki,” or “arrow.” Attack was “ittibbi,” or “fight.”

Within 24 hours after the Code Talkers created the code, the tides of the battle had turned, and in less than 72 hours, the Germans retreated. The achievements were sufficient to encourage a training program for future Code Talkers, but the war was over in a few months.

When German officers were captured, they all asked what language the Allies were using. The only answer they received was “American.”

The armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. But the Choctaws, the first of the wartime Code Talkers, had established the standard for all other Code Talkers to follow.

Nashoba grew up in a “family community,” surrounded by her aunts, uncles and grandparents. In her grandmother’s home, a dusty black and white photo of Ben Carterby hung on the wall.

“I would ask my grandmother, ‘Who is that?’ and she would say, ‘That’s my father,’” Nashoba said. “At the time, I don’t think any of the families knew what these men did. They were sworn to secrecy, and in the Choctaw culture, your word is your honor. Many of the families and descendants only learned about the code talkers when the French government informed them.”

In 1989, the French Prime Minister traveled to Oklahoma to honor the Code Talkers, and in 2006, the Smithsonian created a traveling exhibit about the men. Still, the Choctaws who won the war had not received their medals, but the “Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2007” was signed by President Bush in 2008 to issue medals to recognize the valor of the Native American code talkers.

Three years ago, those medals were finally delivered. More than 19 tribes were on hand to receive medals for their ancestors who were code talkers in both WWI and WWII.

“This is my destiny to tell people about the code talkers, like my great-grandfather,” Nashoba said.

Today, Nashoba and the association continue to honor the Choctaw Code Talkers in preparation for the 100th anniversary of WWI. The silver medals the descendants of the code talkers received is housed in the Choctaw Nation Museum in Tuskahoma, and in 2013, an Oklahoma highway was dedicated as the WWI Choctaw Code Talkers Highway.

“We are also in the process to rename all the bridges in the towns the code talkers came from,” said Nashoba. “It takes money though. It will cost $30,000 for the whole project, and we need legislative approval.

“But this is our history. This is Oklahoma’s history.”

Ben Carterby was shot during the war, and Noel Johnson lost his life. The other Choctaw Code Talkers came home to a country that didn’t recognize them as citizens.

Albert Billy, James Edwards, Solomon Louis, Mitchell Bobb, Victor Braown, Ben Colbert, George Davenport, Joseph Davenport, Tobias Frazier, Benjamin Hampton, Otis Leader, Pete Maytubbe, Jeff Nelson, Joseph Oklahombi, Robert Taylor, Walter Veach and Calvin Wilson would never receive the recognition they deserved while they were alive.

In World War II, Forrester Baker, Schlict Billy, Andrew Perry and Davis Pickens followed in their tribesmen’s footsteps as Choctaw Code Talkers as well.

Today, that same banned language that helped win a war is being taught at Oklahoma universities and the men who fought for their country with that same language are finally being honored.

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About the Author

Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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