Code Talkers

 

We are between Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day. The first is a minor holiday intended to honor those serving in our military. The second is a major federal holiday and is intended to commemorate our honored war dead. A recent conversation with a younger veteran led to talk of his grandfathers’ service in World War II, and that in turn led to a broader reflection on a seldom remembered or only partially understood group of Americans in the two world wars.

The younger veteran’s Hopi grandfather was a tank mechanic. His Navaho grandfather was a code talker in the Marine Corps. As we talked, I mentioned recently learning of the original WWI code talkers, a small team of Choctaw Indians in the American Expeditionary Forces. The Native American veteran replied that there were Hopi and other tribes also used as code talkers in WWII. It is just that the Navajos were the largest group and became the center of historical attention.

A brief exploration of this little known history revealed that I had missed the recent passing of Navajo Code Talker Fleming Begaye, Sr.

Fleming Begaye Sr., one of more than 400 Navajo Code Talkers who developed a secret military code during World War II, died Friday [May 10, 2019] at age 97.

[…]

Begaye was one of three Code Talkers honored at the White House in 2017 for their service in World War II. 

Former Navajo Code Talker Peter MacDonald was with Begaye at the White House and recalled Begaye surviving the Battle of Tarawa, swimming to the beach after his landing craft was destroyed.

President Trump expressed the nation’s gratitude to the Navajo Code Talkers:

“From the heart, from the absolute heart, we appreciate what you’ve done, how you’ve done it, the bravery that you displayed, and the love that you have for your country,” [President] Trump said about the Code Talkers.

The idea of using a language unknown to enemy nations, to communicate securely over wire or air, arose in the crucible of battle, in the First World War. The idea proved so successful in the relatively short period of American unit engagements that the idea was memorialized for possible future use. Yet the original idea of code talkers arose by accident:

In the autumn of 1918, US troops were involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. It was one of the largest frontline commitments of American soldiers in WW1, but communications in the field were compromised. The Germans had successfully tapped telephone lines, were deciphering codes and repeatedly capturing runners sent out to deliver messages directly.

[…]

The solution was stumbled upon by chance, an overheard conversation between two Choctaw soldiers in the 142nd Infantry Regiment. The pair were chatting in camp when a captain walked by and asked what language they were speaking. Realising the potential for communication, he then asked if there were other speakers among the troops. The men knew of Choctaw soldiers at company headquarters. Using a field telephone the captain got the men to deliver a message in their native tongue which their colleagues quickly translated back into English. The Choctaw Telephone Squad was born and so was code talking.

Eighteen Choctaw Code Talkers were quickly recruited from the ranks and put together a sufficient set of military equivalent terms, a code within their indecipherable (to the Germans) language.

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 same idea was repeated before the end of hostilities, as commanders sought out, as code talkers, soldiers who spoke a Native American language fluently, “including the Cheyehne, Comanche, Cherokee, Osage, and Yankton Sioux.” Remarkably, the idea was captured in military institutional memory, with written reports not dropped in the circular file. That institutional memory was dusted off and ramped up to a much larger scale and deliberate program of Code Talkers in World War II.

When the U.S. entered World War II, military leaders remembered the success of the Choctaw Code Talkers and enlisted new recruits from the Navajo, Kiowa, Hopi, Creek, Seminole, and other tribes to encrypt messages for the Army and Marine Corps.

Working with Navajo leaders, the Marine Corps initially recruited 29 Navajo men to train as Code Talkers in specially designed courses. By the end of the war, the Marines had over 400 Navajo men trained as Code Talkers, many of them serving in the Pacific Theater. The Army had similar training programs for its Code Talkers, who generally served in Europe and North Africa.

 

In Europe, the first message off of Utah Beach on D-Day was in Comanche:

Fourteen of the Comanche Code Talkers were sent overseas during WWII to fight in the European Theater. Thirteen of those men hit the beaches of Normandy with Allied troops on D-Day. When the 4th Infantry Division landed on Utah Beach, they were five miles off their designated target. The first message sent from the beach was sent in Comanche from Code Talker, Private First Class Larry Saupitty. His message was “Tsaakʉ nʉnnuwee. Atahtu nʉnnuwee,” which translates to: “We made a good landing. We landed in the wrong place.”

While we reflect on the invaluable contributions of servicemen fluent in their tribes’ native tongues, we ought also give a thought to our neighbors to the north. Canadians from the Cree Nation supported the U.S. Army Air Corps 8th Air Force in Britain, passing tasking orders and status reports back and forth between bases without the Germans having a basis for cracking the “code.” The Canadians had the same problem as the U.S. of white supremacists enforcing their bigotry through military manning policy, to the detriment of the true national interest.

Non-whites were barred from Canadian air and naval service for the first several years of the war, until it became untenable from a man-power perspective. As a result, First Nations and Inuit men were concentrated in the Army. That set the condition for assistance to the U.S. and British commands in England, creating a Cree Code Talker group:

On 22 August 1942, the United States Army Corps Head Quarters and the Canadian Military Head Quarters (CMHQ) began recruiting Creespeakers, already stationed in England, to use the ​Cree language​ to disguise Allied communications.

According to ​Charles Tomkins​, a former Cree code talker, the Cree were not the only ​Indigenous people​ recruited for this mission. Tomkins recollected seeing an estimated 100 Indigenous soldiers assembled by the CMHQ in London, from which Cree, Ojibwe and others were chosen.

[…]

The messages code talkers translated contained vital information about Allied forces, including orders for troop movement and the identification of supply lines or aircraft that were to carry out bombing runs from England. Code talkers translated the messages into Cree before they were sent to battlefields in Europe, where another code talker translated them back into English and sent them to military commanders.

“Diversity is our strength” is a much abused slogan, generally thin on substance, but these bands of brothers, in the two largest wars of the 20th Century, put meat on the bones. The first half of the last century was a time when speed, volume, and precision of communications was greatly increasing. Yet, real-time true encryption/decryption of voice and text transmission would not arrive until the development of rugged programable microchip computers. In the gap between electronic communication and computer-based encryption, the languages of those who had been defeated and subjugated by English speaking industrial civilizations suddenly became national security assets.

While the French government honored our Code Talkers in 1987, it took until 2008 for Congress to recognize all Code Talkers, authorizing a gold medal for the tribes and silver medals for the families or surviving veteran Code Talkers. Then, it took another five years for the grandees of the House and Senate to bother having a ceremony to present the Congressional medals to the Code Talkers‘ tribes and families. While Congress covered itself in ignominy, there are good stories.

That young veteran of our war in Afghanistan wrapped up his remembrance of his Navaho Code Talker grandfather with a proud account of his funeral. The family had contacted Senator John McCain’s office to request that Marines from the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma support the funeral of their Marine grandfather. The senator, himself, called back and promised his personal intervention in anything they needed. The Marines arrived in the high desert and rendered a funeral with full military honors, marking the passage of one of their own. The Marines were there, again, this May to honor their fellow Marine, Navajo Code Talker Fleming Begaye Sr.:

Begaye was honored with a military funeral and burial Friday. His casket was brought into the church carried by seven Marines. 

He was later buried in the family plot near his family farm in Salt Water Canyon, Arizona. During the burial, two Marines folded the flag that covered his casket, while the others fired three volleys in Begaye’s honor. Begaye’s daughter, Veronica Walter, was presented with the flag. 

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There are 20 comments.

  1. Bob Thompson Member

    This article and the links were an interesting read for me. Thank you for the post. My 3rd Great Grandfather was Ira Crowder. His older brother was Eli White Crowder, a redheaded Welshman, 1781-1883, who had a long and storied history with Choctaws. Eli served with Native Americans under General Andrew Jackson in north Alabama in the War of 1812 fighting against Creeks who were allied with the British, I think, or at least they chose to fight Jackson and other Americans. From this period Eli acquired the name Muscokubi, that is said to mean Creek Killer in Choctaw. There is an interesting story behind how he got that name.

    In 1847, Eli led a group of 100 Choctaws referred to as the Big Black River Band from Mississippi to Fort Smith, Arkansas to live in the Indian Territory. I believe Crowder, Oklahoma is named after him. He was married 3 times, all to Native Americans, at least one of whom was Choctaw, and he had 22 children. I have seen records where one son born in 1814 was named Jackson Crowder. I guess we know how he got that name. Eli may have had some descendants in those Codetalkers.

    • #1
    • May 23, 2019, at 5:54 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    Clifford A. Brown: His message was “Tsaakʉ nʉnnuwee. Atahtu nʉnnuwee,” which translates to: “We made a good landing. We landed in the wrong place.”

    Love it.

    • #2
    • May 23, 2019, at 5:57 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  3. Arahant Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    Eli served with Native Americans under General Andrew Jackson in north Alabama in the War of 1812 fighting against Creeks who were allied with the British, I think, or at least they chose to fight Jackson and other Americans.

    Fighting my distant cousin.

    • #3
    • May 23, 2019, at 5:59 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Wonderful post, Clifford. We owe much to these men, and I’m so glad that their ability to contribute was discovered and used.

    • #4
    • May 23, 2019, at 6:05 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  5. Bob Thompson Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    Eli served with Native Americans under General Andrew Jackson in north Alabama in the War of 1812 fighting against Creeks who were allied with the British, I think, or at least they chose to fight Jackson and other Americans.

    Fighting my distant cousin.

    Don’t know your distant cousin but I understand Creeks were fighting on both sides, mostly divided with the elders with the Americans and younger ones not happy about American government.

    • #5
    • May 23, 2019, at 6:08 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    Don’t know your distant cousin but I understand Creeks were fighting on both sides, mostly divided with the elders with the Americans and younger ones not happy about American government.

    He was one of the main Redstick chiefs.

    • #6
    • May 23, 2019, at 6:22 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. Bob Thompson Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    Don’t know your distant cousin but I understand Creeks were fighting on both sides, mostly divided with the elders with the Americans and younger ones not happy about American government.

    He was one of the main Redstick chiefs.

    Looks like he was at least one generation into Creek tribal society. I have some possible similar family history with an Abercrombie whose ancestor arrived in Charleston but at some point joined Cherokees in northwestern Georgia. It appears that, although many Scotsmen went to Canada or back to Scotland after the defeat of the Loyalists, a great number went west and joined with the Native Americans. Maybe the Matrilineal tradition for family assignment did not apply to the naming tradition. I have a 2nd Great Grandmother Malissa Abercrombie who some have claimed was a Cherokee princess. I suppose her father could have achieved a leadership role as did Weatherford. My documentation is not yet solid though.

    • #7
    • May 23, 2019, at 6:46 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. Arahant Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    I have a 2nd Great Grandmother Malissa Abercrombie who some have claimed was a Cherokee princess.

    Like Elizabeth Warren? 😜 These things are often more reported on than real.

    • #8
    • May 23, 2019, at 11:30 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. The Reticulator Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    Don’t know your distant cousin but I understand Creeks were fighting on both sides, mostly divided with the elders with the Americans and younger ones not happy about American government.

    He was one of the main Redstick chiefs.

    Looks like he was at least one generation into Creek tribal society. I have some possible similar family history with an Abercrombie whose ancestor arrived in Charleston but at some point joined Cherokees in northwestern Georgia. It appears that, although many Scotsmen went to Canada or back to Scotland after the defeat of the Loyalists, a great number went west and joined with the Native Americans. Maybe the Matrilineal tradition for family assignment did not apply to the naming tradition. I have a 2nd Great Grandmother Malissa Abercrombie who some have claimed was a Cherokee princess. I suppose her father could have achieved a leadership role as did Weatherford. My documentation is not yet solid though.

    “Princess” was not really a concept that the Native people of North America ever had. And positions of leadership were not hereditary, at least not formally. (I am most familiar with the Algonquian-speaking groups, which do not include the Cherokee.) So it’s hard to know how to interpret stories that involve supposed Indian princesses. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they were invented out of nothing, though in some cases it seems that they were.

    Here in southwest Michigan there is an Almena township that is supposedly named after a Potawatomi princess. However, there is no “l” sound in the Potawatomi language, and in any case that doesn’t at all look like a word from an Algonquian language. There had been an “l” sound in some of the Algonquian languages that later morphed into an “n” sound, but as far as I know that long predated the European settlement of Michigan. So somebody may have been pulling somebody’s leg, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a Potawatomi jokester having some fun at the expense of the first European settlers.

    In an Indian cemetery in the same county there is a gravestone for a “Princess Lonidaw “Angeline” Pokagon.” There’s that “L” again, but the Pokagons were a prominent family under whose leadership their sub-group was allowed to stay in Michigan when the others were deported. Pokagon is now the name of that federally-recognized band of Potawatomi. She was married to Simon Pokagon, son of an important ogema (wkema, i.e. leader). I throw in those words just to show how tricky it can be to capture pronunciations of Potawatomi words by English-speaking people. But the main point is that some people seemed to like attaching the word “princess” to prominent Potawatomi women, even if their social arrangements didn’t include anything like princesses. 

    • #9
    • May 24, 2019, at 6:02 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. Bob Thompson Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    “Princess” was not really a concept that the Native people of North America ever had. And positions of leadership were not hereditary, at least not formally.

    Leadership certainly does not appear to have been hereditary since a number of Scotsmen rose to such positions in the five southern tribes. “Princess” perhaps was appended by those colonists who were aware of the father’s move into tribal leadership?

    • #10
    • May 24, 2019, at 6:18 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Kay of MT Member

    My Great-grandfather, James Newton Menasco, Jr. married a Choctaw lady and was on the 1900 census in OK, with 5 children, 2 of them boys. Have lost track of one of the boys, but the other married and had 10 children. Is there a name list to determine if any of the boys from this family were in the military during WW1 and WW11? Their name would get spelled as Monasco, Menasco, and Manasco.

    • #11
    • May 24, 2019, at 6:25 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. The Reticulator Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    “Princess” was not really a concept that the Native people of North America ever had. And positions of leadership were not hereditary, at least not formally.

    Leadership certainly does not appear to have been hereditary since a number of Scotsmen rose to such positions in the five southern tribes. “Princess” perhaps was appended by those colonists who were aware of the father’s move into tribal leadership?

    I had not thought of that connection between the two characteristics of social organization, but you’re probably on to something. (Such anthropology as I have learned is from semi-random reading on my own, so there are probably a lot of connections I have missed.)

    • #12
    • May 24, 2019, at 7:00 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. Bob Thompson Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    “Princess” was not really a concept that the Native people of North America ever had. And positions of leadership were not hereditary, at least not formally.

    Leadership certainly does not appear to have been hereditary since a number of Scotsmen rose to such positions in the five southern tribes. “Princess” perhaps was appended by those colonists who were aware of the father’s move into tribal leadership?

    I had not thought of that connection between the two characteristics of social organization, but you’re probably on to something. (Such anthropology as I have learned is from semi-random reading on my own, so there are probably a lot of connections I have missed.)

    Yeah, my middle name is O’Neil so a bunch of people call me ‘Chief’. 

    • #13
    • May 24, 2019, at 7:26 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  14. Arahant Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    (I am most familiar with the Algonquian-speaking groups, which do not include the Cherokee.)

    The Creek and Seminole were matriarchal, and the clan membership passed through the mother. The Clan of the Wind was the leadership. It would not be the chief’s daughter who was considered a “princess,” but his sister’s daughter. But it was a form of hereditary leadership, somewhat akin to Tanistry.

    • #14
    • May 24, 2019, at 9:36 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. Arahant Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    “Princess” was not really a concept that the Native people of North America ever had. And positions of leadership were not hereditary, at least not formally.

    Leadership certainly does not appear to have been hereditary since a number of Scotsmen rose to such positions in the five southern tribes. “Princess” perhaps was appended by those colonists who were aware of the father’s move into tribal leadership?

    The chiefly line went through the mothers, not the fathers. If you look into Alexander M’Gillivray and his nephews William McIntosh and William Weatherford, they were all part of the Clan of the Wind maternally.

    • #15
    • May 24, 2019, at 9:39 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. The Reticulator Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    (I am most familiar with the Algonquian-speaking groups, which do not include the Cherokee.)

    The Creek and Seminole were matriarchal, and the clan membership passed through the mother. The Clan of the Wind was the leadership. It would not be the chief’s daughter who was considered a “princess,” but his sister’s daughter. But it was a form of hereditary leadership, somewhat akin to Tanistry.

    I think some of the Algonquian “tribes” had a similar practice in which leadership tended to come from a specific clan.

    • #16
    • May 24, 2019, at 9:40 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. Bob Thompson Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    (I am most familiar with the Algonquian-speaking groups, which do not include the Cherokee.)

    The Creek and Seminole were matriarchal, and the clan membership passed through the mother. The Clan of the Wind was the leadership. It would not be the chief’s daughter who was considered a “princess,” but his sister’s daughter. But it was a form of hereditary leadership, somewhat akin to Tanistry.

    I think some of the Algonquian “tribes” had a similar practice in which leadership tended to come from a specific clan.

    Didn’t this kind of leadership process work as well in the Scottish Highland Clans but patriarchal with Campbells and MacDonalds for example? Anyone steeped in knowledge about that?

    • #17
    • May 24, 2019, at 9:44 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. Arahant Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    Didn’t this kind of leadership process work as well in the Scottish Highland Clans but patriarchal with Campbells and MacDonalds for example? Anyone steeped in knowledge about that?

    Yes. Generally, the chiefly line was passed through male-preference primogeniture. In Ireland and parts of Scotland, it was a bit more complex with Tanistry.

    • #18
    • May 24, 2019, at 9:49 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  19. Bob Thompson Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    Didn’t this kind of leadership process work as well in the Scottish Highland Clans but patriarchal with Campbells and MacDonalds for example? Anyone steeped in knowledge about that?

    Yes. Generally, the chiefly line was passed through male-preference primogeniture. In Ireland and parts of Scotland, it was a bit more complex with Tanistry.

    I should have paid attention when you offered that earlier.

    • #19
    • May 24, 2019, at 10:08 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    It struck me that I have never seen a code talker in a war movie, outside of the movie dedicated to the Navajo Code Talkers. Mulling this over, the basic problem was the veil of official secrecy cast over the program. People in the two World Wars took their orders seriously, especially when enormous prison sentences might attach to violations of orders to never reveal an official secret.

    So, movie makers just would not ever get the technical advice to include a Comanche character in a WW II movie as the radio operator in a senior headquarters. Stories on the big or home screen, if set in England, never were informed, after declassification in the late 1960s, that there might be a Canadian soldier manning the radio or wire and passing/receiving reports in Cree.

    • #20
    • May 24, 2019, at 3:27 PM PDT
    • 3 likes