Native American codetalkers in World War One

The use of Native American codetalkers, e.g. the Navajos, in World War Two by the US military is by now quite well known.  What is lesser known, although hardly a secret, is that the US military also employed codetalkers in World War One towards the very end of the conflict.   The use was successful enough that the United States tried it again in World War Two, this time on a much larger scale.

What exactly was codetalking?   In the case of the Native Americans, it was translating battlefield instructions, e.g. orders, from English into their own languages and conveying them by telephone, radio, etc., to another speaker of that language on the other end, who would then translate them back into English.  The “codes,” if you want to call them that, were essentially special words made up in the respective language that were needed on the battlefield.   The Choctaws for example, used “bad air” when they wanted to say “gas” and “scalp” when they wanted to say “casualties” because “gas” and “casualties” were words that did not necessarily exist in their own language.  Those Choctaws that knew the special vocabulary were codetalkers—those that didn’t were not.  Said another way, not every  Choctaw in World War One would have been a codetalker.

The abovementioned Choctaws are the most famous of the World War One  codetalkers.   As members of the 36th Division (made up on many Oklahoma-based Native American tribes), they first conducted operational  codetalking during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France on 26-27 October 1918. The end result was the US capture from the Germans of an area called Forest Farm.  The Germans, who had the uncanny knack of knowing when the Americans would be attacking, were caught completely by surprise this time.

Further research has shown that the Cherokees codetalkers from the 30thDivision (composed of many Native American tribes from the southeastern part of the United States) were actually used before the Choctaws—on 7-8 October 1918 in a successful assault against the German Hindenburg Line in France.   There are also reports and claims that the Comanche, Osage, and Sioux tribes also engaged in codetalking about this time.  Unfortunately, there is no “smoking gun” out there to prove any of these three beyond doubt. It is of course possible that further research will find that gun and will find other tribes as well who did World War One  codetalking.

Finally, the United States should be congratulated for bringing recognition to its codetalkers.  We have to ask why other nations have been reluctant to publicly reward  their own codetalkers.   While these other World War One combatants (except for Canada) did not have Native Americans of their own, they certainly must have seen the advantages of passing messages on the battlefield in an obscure language.   Many of the combatants, e.g., the British, had colonies of their own, with their choice of obscure tongues to utilize.  Yet only the Americans, it seems,  are recognizing their people.  At the time of the 100th Anniversary of World War One, it is time for other nations to be more forthcoming about the work of their codetalkers in this conflict.

Gregory J. Nedved is Vice President of the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland, and a historian for the US Department of Defense.

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