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.
“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.