WWI code talkers

World War One’s Native American Code Talkers

In World War II, a group of Navajo enlisted in the Marines with the sole purpose of developing unique communication codes. These Marines came to be known as the “code talkers,” soldiers who developed signals and messages based on native languages that when translated into English spelled out specific messages. The Navajo became famous for their ingenuity in adopting their native language to military code, but they were by no means the first.   (This post was written by guest blogger Thomas Richardson.)

The First Code Talkers

During World War I, American units with various Native American soldiers used their languages to communicate between the lines and to send messages to headquarters. A well-known group who accomplished this task were the Choctaw code talkers.

Securing lines of communication are vital in every war and on every battlefield. If the enemy broke this security, they could quickly learn of impending attacks, logistical situations, and thwart their opponents at every opportunity. German radio operators and code-breakers were adept in their monitoring and deciphering of enemy communications. Fortunately for the American Expeditionary Force, Native American languages became a valuable asset that pioneered an innovative communications practice.

Choctaw regularly spoke in their native languages within their group. Native American languages possessed uniqueness in that they are not typically written down and due to geographic distance, were relatively unknown to Europeans.

Realizing the Extraordinary

Colonel A.W. Bloor of the 142nd Infantry Regiment overheard a conversation and realized something extraordinary; if he couldn’t understand what the Choctaw were saying, then the Germans would have an arduous time trying to decipher messages. Colonel Bloor decided to utilize these Choctaw soldiers to develop a military code using their specific dialects. An obstacle however was much of the U.S. military vocabulary did not have a corresponding word in Choctaw dialects. This forced them to improvise certain words that related to their messages.

Colonel Bloor described this process in a report to his commanding general’s headquarters:

It had been found that the Indian’s vocabulary of military terms was insufficient. The Indian word 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, three grains of corn.’” Source: National Archives Catalog

Great Success

Following training periods for developing a standardized Native American code, it was quickly implemented, and Colonel Bloor cited instantaneous results. German code-breakers who routinely deciphered American messages were stumped by the innovative use of Choctaw dialects. Repeated surprises by AEF assaults confirmed that Germans could not understand the new Native American code talkers. Captured German soldiers later stated that the use of Native American languages confused them, and they could not gain any useful information.

Despite their achievements in France, the Choctaw code talkers were largely forgotten after the end of the war. The prominence of Navajo code talkers in World War II overshadowed much of the Choctaw’s former accomplishments in encoding military messages. In the 1980s, they received posthumous honors from both the Choctaw Nation and France for their contributions, and in 2008, President George Bush signed the Code Talkers Recognition Act which posthumously awarded every code talker a Congressional Gold Medal.