Choctaw Indian Code Talkers of World War I
The United States has experienced a war in every generation since Independence, and Choctaw warriors have always fought alongside American Soldiers. Fulfilling a prophecy by Pushmataha, a Choctaw chief who died in 1827, that the Choctaw “War Cry” would be heard in many foreign lands. Tribesmen volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War in 1898, World War I in 1917, and World War II in 1941 and in wars around the world since 1945. The Choctaw soldiers were distinguished in them all.
Among the Choctaw “Doughboys” were sixteen members of the 142nd Infantry Regiment and two members of the 143rd Infantry Regiment who earned immortality as “Code Talkers.” Both Regiments were part of the 36th Division. Ranging in age from nineteen to thirty-three, the Code Talkers from the 142nd were: Solomon Bond Lewis; Ben Carterby; Mitchell Bobb; Robert Taylor; Calvin Wilson; Pete Maytubby; James M. Edwards; Jeff Nelson; Tobias William Frazier; Benjamin W. Hampton; Albert Billy; Walter Veach; Joseph Davenport; George Davenport; Noel Johnson; and Otis Leader. The two members of the 143rd were Victor Brown and Joseph Oklahombi.
On October 1, 1917, the 142nd was organized as regular infantry and given training at Camp Bowie near Fort Worth as part of the 36th Division. Transferred to France for action, the first unit of the division arrived in France, May 31, 1918, and the last August 12, 1918. The 36th Division moved to the western front on October 6, 1918. Although the American forces were late in entering the war that had raged since 1914, their participation provided the margin of victory as the war played out to its bitter end.
Within two days the 36th Division was engaged in a major battle. Attacking the Germans in the trenches, the Americans were unprotected crossing a wide stretch of land, except for heavy artillery fire as cover from the 142nd Infantry. The artillery fire kept the Germans pinned down, allowing the Americans to kill and/or capture the Germans in their own trenches.
Noticing German communications lines lying in the open on the ground, the Americans felt that they had been left behind so that they would be used and the messages could be intercepted. Messengers were sent out from one company to another, but one out of four of these messengers or runners were captured by the German troops. The Germans had decoded all transmitted messages up to this point in the war.
The situation can be best told in the words of Colonel A. W. Bloor, the commander of the 142nd Infantry Regiment. The memo he sent to the Headquarters read:
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
Eighteen men were recruited to transmit messages and devise a system of communications for the Code Talkers. Within twenty-four hours after the Code Talkers began their work, the tides of the battle had turned, and in less than 72 hours the Germans were retreating and the Allies were on full attack. The achievements were sufficient to encourage a training program for future Code Talkers, but the war was over in a few months. The armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. But the Choctaw’s, the first Code Talkers, had established the standard for all other Code Talkers to follow.
The Code Talkers:
During World War I, with the tapping of the American Army’s phone line, the Germans were able to learn the location of the American Forces as well as where their supplies were kept.
According to Mozelle Dawson of Coalinga, California, her father, Albert Billy, suggested to his commanding officer that the Choctaw language be used to confuse the enemy. She said Billy had the idea that Indians be used on the phone lines talking in their native dialect. This would confuse anyone tapping into the lines. As it turned out, the Germans were more than just a little confused, and after the Choctaw Code Talkers were put on the phones, the Germans immediately began losing.
Ms. Dawson said her father told her that during the night, some Germans were captured, and a General of the German Army said that he would like to ask just one question: “What nationality was on the phones that night?” The only reply that this German officer received was that it was only Americans that had been on the phones.
Albert Billy died in 1958. He was a member of the 142nd Infantry of the U.S. Army and was from Poteau, Oklahoma in LeFlore County.
Biographical information needed.
Victor Brown, one of the original Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I, served in the 143rd Infantry. His daughter, Napanee Brown Coffman of Bartlesville, Oklahoma writes, “He was one of the Indian telephone operators who spoke Choctaw.
“The Germans could not break the code. He served in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and was wounded (as his citation from President Wilson states) – gassed (mustard gas), broken nose and head injuries.
“My father seldom talked about the war, but I used to ask him and he would tell me about his war service and experiences.
“I remember quite well about his stories of speaking in Choctaw over the telephone lines as he was very proud and pleased that they had ‘fooled the Germans.’ He was also very pleased to have served in France and to have seen Paris because he was one-fourth French and three-quarters Choctaw. His mother was the daughter of a French trader. There used to be a French settlement near Idabel, Oklahoma.
“My father was an orphan, and Mr. Gabe Parker helped to look after him. My father attended Armstrong Academy, was a graduate of Haskell Institute at Lawrence, Kansas, attended Tyler Commercial College and Southeastern State College.
“After the war, he entered the Indian Service and was Field Clerk for the Choctaw Nation. He was an auditor in the Internal Revenue Service and finished his government service at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma (civilian),
“During World War II he was a Deputy State Examiner and inspector for the State of Oklahoma. He died July 22, 1966.”
Code Talker Ben Carterby, born in 1892 at Battiest, the son of Ebon and Taboll Carterby, preferred, like most combat veterans, to remember his humble beginnings rather than his war experiences. Recalling that his grandparents had removed from Mississippi to locate the Carterby home place in the woods of the Ouachita Mountains, the quiet hero chose to talk about the simple pleasures of life rather than the violence of war. Often reminiscing about his family, he recalled there was always plenty to eat. The country was filled with deer and wild game and the creeks and river full of fish. The five acres owned by the Carterbys enabled them to raise enough corn to live on along with a large vegetable garden. In his later years he liked to remember the times passed gathering onions, tying them together, and hanging them in the house for use. He recalled that his family and most of his neighbors raised a few cattle, hogs, and ponies. The animals were allowed to roam freely, taking care of themselves. They were not fed or watered and sometimes went wild making it difficult to herd them in for spring branding, but their owners were never out any expense on their care. He recalled that his mother made all the family clothing with a spinning wheel and a weaver. She wove all the material at home, making shirts, pants, and dresses, all sewn from heavy materials that lasted a long time and was warm in the winter.
These were the memories of a soldier. Carterby embraced the unpretentious, quiet existence of an ordinary man in private life. Determined not to remember the war and the fighting, he purposely avoided discussions and nostalgic memories of the frightening experiences of war, a common thread among all veterans.
George E. Davenport
George Davenport was born in Antlers, Oklahoma , April 28, 1887. He was a member of the famous 36th Division, composed of Oklahoma and Texas boys. Of Indian descent, he was one of a group which transmitted information in the Choctaw language from the front lines back to interpreters in headquarters in a crucial drive against the enemy.
Joseph H. Davenport
Biographical information needed.
James M. Edwards
James Morrison Edwards was born to Morrison and Lena Carney Edwards on October 6, 1898 at Glover, OK.
Edwards attended Armstrong Academy in Caddo, Oklahoma, and the Folsom Methodist Training School in Smithville, Oklahoma. He was known for his laughter, and was often joking around with his buddy Ben Carterby. Edwards was one of the first to transmit messages in Choctaw on October 26, 1918.
Later during World War II, he tried to enlist again, stating "maybe they [German forces] still can't talk Choctaw". Edwards worked for the BIA and served the Choctaw people as a pastor of the Indian Methodist Church.
James Edwards died on October 13, 1962.
Tobias William Frazier
World War I was for the most part, different from World War II, in that World War I was trench warfare. The English and French in one set of deep trenches and the Germans and their Allies in another set, usually only a few hundred yards apart. Each side would climb out of the trenches and charge across no man’s land toward the other side’s trenches, in the hope of breaking through and advancing into the other’s territory. Both sides used telephone lines and crude radios to alert troops of upcoming charges. Enemy telephones were tapped and radio messages intercepted. Germany had experts who knew all normal languages so it was impossible to have a secret. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Native Americans (Indians) were among the soldiers. Even though the Native Americans were not allowed to become U.S. citizens until 1924, they felt a deep patriotic duty to volunteer and serve their country.
One of those patriotic Native Americans was my father, Tobias William Frazier. He was born in Indian Territory, August 7th, 1892, to Reason and Susan Payne Frazier. Papa volunteered to defend our country on May 19, 1917 and was deployed to Camp Bowie, near Fort Worth, Texas. This camp is no longer in existence. The Native American soldiers were disappointed not to have their own regiment but were combined with the Texas National Guard and became the 36th Division.
There were comments that the Choctaws and Native Americans, being of small stature, could not keep up with the marching because of their small feet, etc., but they proved to be exceptional. The training was primitive. For example, they used sticks to simulate guns. Papa sailed for France on July 18th, 1918. I asked him about his journey from Oklahoma to the east coast by train. He said it was a huge world and his eyes were big, looking at the sights. I don’t know how long it took his troop ship to arrive in France. There General Pershing began his great Meuse-Argonne offensive late in September 1918. The 2nd and 36th Divisions traveled by train and were trucked to the front, east of Reims. They were assigned to the Fourth French Army, which was supporting Pershing’s offensive, and were given the task of breaking the German grasp on the most critical part in the line. Near St. Etienne, the Germans held fast when the 2nd Division entered the fray. The 36th Division was called in to replace a weary 2nd Division and at this time the Choctaw language was used as the code, as all other languages were being broken by the enemy.
Papa received a flesh wound in the left leg from a snipers bullet and received a Purple Heart. He told us the sniper was killed by his buddies and when Papa saw the sniper, it looked like it was a woman. I would look at the scar and wonder if it was painful. He always said it was more painful playing football at Armstrong Academy than getting his war wound.
He said there was talk among the Choctaws that they could relay messages in their own tongue and this conversation was overheard by an officer. The officer trained fourteen Choctaws to be radio operators. This was rudimentary code, for example: a regiment was called ‘the tribe’ in Choctaw. The Germans were completely routed since they could not break the code, and turned this campaign into an outstanding success. This also paved the way for the World War II success of the Navajo Code Talkers.
-- Adapted from comments by Ruth Frazier McMillan
Benjamin W. Hampton
A 1979 issue of the Durant Daily Democrat newspaper reported of a visit by Ben Hampton to the city of Durant on August 16, 1939. The article reads as follows:
An interesting Durant visitor Wednesday was Benjamin W. Hampton, Choctaw World War I veteran who lives in Bennington. Ben’s part in the U.S. battle plan was unique but nonetheless important. High Allied officials had learned that Germans were tapping their communications lines, decoding messages, and using the information to good advantage. There’s where Ben and some of his fellow Choctaws came in. They’d speak only Choctaw over the wire, and then interpret to officers at either end. After the war it was definitely established that the Choctaw lingo defied all efforts of German code experts, which isn’t surprising if you’ve ever heard it spoken.
Biographical information needed.
Otis W. Leader
Otis W. Leader, another hero of World War I, was born near Citra in Hughes County, on November 5, 1882. He entered the army at the age of thirty-five, one of the oldest men in the service. He had attended Oklahoma Presbyterian College and Texas A&M playing baseball and football in his youth. Upon his arrival in France, Leader was selected to pose as the model representative of the newly arrived American soldiers by a French artist commissioned to paint portraits of the Allied army by the French government. His portrait and statue are in Paris and London.
Winning the French Croix de Guerre twice, a Purple Heart, and Battle Stars for Sommerviller, Ansauville, Picardy, Cantigny, Second Marne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, Mouson-Sedan, and Coblenz Bridgehead, Leader was called one of the "war's greatest fighting machines" by General Pershing. On the night of November 2, 1917, Leader's company drew the first relief assignment, moving into the trenches at Bathlemont. The following day his company defended the flank in the first engagement of Americans in combat of World War I.
On May 28, 1918, Leader was wounded and gassed during the American offensive at Cantigny but rejoined his division near Soissons in July. In the next battle, he crawled through a ravine to attack a machine gun nest. Getting within sixty feet of the enemy, Leader picked up a rifle and fought with the infantry after his own machine gun crew had all been killed. Attacking the German positions, Leader captured two machine guns and eighteen enemy soldiers manning them. On October 1, 1918, he was wounded again and hospitalized at Vichy. He was still in the hospital when the armistice was signed on November 11.
Returning to Oklahoma, Leader quietly married Minnie Lee and moved to Scipio in Pittsburg County, where he worked with the Highway Department for twenty-five years before retiring to Lehigh. In 1955, the Oklahoma House of Representatives praised Leader as the Outstanding Soldier of World War I. He was buried at Coalgate in 1961.
Solomon Bond Louis
Solomon Bond Louis, a fullblood Choctaw who is credited with being the leader of the original Choctaw Code Talkers in World War I during a fierce battle in France against the German Army, was actually underage when he entered the armed services to fight for his country.
This proud young Indian man from Bryan County, Oklahoma attended Armstrong Academy and when his older friends enlisted, Louis pretended to be 18 so that he, too, could join the service.
Solomon Louis received his basic training at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma and then was sent to Ft. Worth, Texas where he joined an all-Indian Company which was part of the 36th Division.
Louis was stationed at Division Headquarters, with Choctaw James Edwards on the other end of the telephone line out in the field at the front line.
With Edwards in the actual combat zone, he was able to inform Louis, using the Choctaw language, what the Germans were up to. When Solomon Louis returned home from the war, he and his wife, Mary, made their home in Bennington, Oklahoma.
Biographical information needed.
Biographical information needed.
Joseph Oklahombi, born in 1892, from Wright City has been lauded as Oklahoma’s greatest war hero of World War I. Oklahombi had lived quietly in the Kiamichi Mountains with only a few neighbors around him, when he walked from his home to enlist at Idabel, the county seat. After basic training, the young Choctaw was sent to France.
A month before the armistice in 1918, Oklahombi and his buddies in Company D, 141st Infantry, 36th Division, were cut off from the rest of the company. They came across a German machine gun emplacement, with about 50 trench mortars. Crossing "No Man's Land" numerous times, the Choctaw warrior assisted his wounded friends and carried information back to headquarters about the enemy. Oklahombi moved about 200 yards over open ground against artillery and machine gun fire, rushing a machine gun nest and capturing one of the guns. Turning the weapon on the enemy, the Americans held the Germans down with blistering fire for four days until their surrender. Of the enemy, 171 were taken prisoner.
General orders cited Oklahombi for his bravery for his actions. He was awarded the Silver Star to be worn on the Victory Ribbon by General Pershing, and the Croix de Guerre from Marshall Pertain. On another occasion, Oklahombi confronted a German troop having a meal and resting in a cemetery. Enclosed by high walls with only one gate, Oklahombi covered the gate with blistering fire. A true marksman, Oklahombi killed the Germans by the dozens, seventy-nine according to some reports, until the whole force surrendered.
Besides his fighting activities in Europe during the war, Oklahombi was valuable to Allied Troops because of his Indian background. Allies used the Choctaw language as a code for messages – a code never broken by the German intelligence officers.
Oklahombi, on returning to his homeland, was another soldier home from the war – no triumphant entry into the port of New York, no bands playing nor ticker tape parade.
He was merely another soldier from the war making his way back to his home in the Kiamichi Mountains in southeastern Oklahoma to be with his wife and son. Joseph settled back to a life of farming, hunting and fishing.
As this country grew nearer the brink of war in 1940, Oklahombi was called upon to give his views of another conflict. “The United States must prepare itself and really prepare immediately,” he said. “Of course, I’m not in favor of war, but if the peace of the United States is molested, we must be prepared to defend ourselves.”
The Choctaw hero was always very reluctant to talk of his experiences after the war. Finally refusing to even speak English in public, the modest Oklahombi, honored at a reception at Southeastern State College, only spoke in his own Choctaw language. In 1992, his medals were reissued to his son, Jonah, and are currently on display at the Choctaw Capitol Museum at Tushka Homma.
Oklahombi was killed in an accident near his home on April 13, 1960.
Biographical information needed.
Soon after Oklahoma became a state, a young Choctaw man named Walter Veach helped organize Company H, First Infantry (Durant, Oklahoma’s first National Guard Unit) and served as its commander.
Under his command, Company H put down the Crazy Snake uprising near Henryetta in the old Creek Nation, and later was detailed to patrol the border between the United States and Mexico. The company had a major hand in stopping the Pancho Villa invasion of Texas.
In 1917, the company merged with the Texas 36th Division and was sent to Europe. Veach, now a Captain, was told to organize an all-Indian company of members of 11 Oklahoma Indian tribes.
This all-Indian company was Company E. The company saw much activity during the war, and received recognition for the use of Indian language as a “code” to confound the Germans who were tapping in on their field telephone lines.
The record of Company E played a role in granting full United States citizenship to Indians – a Congressional act finally passed in 1924.
Walter Veach passed away in October 1966. This information was submitted by his daughter, Jeanette Veach Brinkerhoff.
Biographical information needed.