People are probably more familiar with the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, but the Choctaw Tribe is proud to acknowledge the United States military service of its members. As early as the Spanish-American War and in every conflict since, members of the Choctaw tribe have served as American soldiers.
In World War I, several members were serving in the 142nd and 143rd Infantry Regiments and served as “code talkers.” The 142nd had trained at Camp Bowie, Fort Worth, Texas and were deployed in France. The war had raged for nearly four years in Europe and the 142nd was part of the 36th Division installed to try and support the other allied forces against the German army. Despite the fact that the war was destined to come to an end fairly soon thereafter, the outcome would not have been considered to have been determinable at that time.
Camp Bowie was in existence for about two years in Fort Worth, Texas. It was located in what is now the Arlington Heights neighborhood, about three miles west of Fort Worth. It was named for a hero of the Texas Revolution, James “Jim” Bowie. About 2,200 acres was dedicated to the military reservation. It was intended to be a tent camp with a small number of more permanent structures. At its peak, it housed about 31,000 individuals, primarily the 36th Division until they were deployed in France. After the 36th shipped out, Camp Bowie hovered around 5,000 individuals and following the end of World War I, it operated as a demobilization center until it was closed in the late summer of 1919. Though little if any of the military structures remain in any known condition, the area is still considered to be a historical district in Fort Worth. Camp Bowie Boulevard remains as a memorial to the World War I installation. There have been at least three military installations in Texas named after Jim Bowie including one in Brownwood, Texas in World War II.
On October 6, 1918, the Choctaw Nation website relates, United States forces came across apparently abandoned German communication lines in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in Europe. After reflection, the Allies suspected that they may have purposely been left intact, hoping that allied forces would use them and then be observed by German intelligence. Means of military communication of the day were seriously limited field telephones, runners, rockets, carrier pigeons and others. German forces were known to use eavesdropping techniques to gain a tactical advantage. An example was given where false coordinates were transmitted for the location of a supply dump and the location was bombed only thirty minutes later. On another occasion, a German observer is said to have broken into a supposedly secure transmission to taunt the English-speakers on their use of code words.
Three weeks later, United States Army leadership was aware of the Choctaw presence in the 142nd, and the unlikely chance that the enemy forces would have any knowledge of the Choctaw language. Accordingly, the decision was made to employ Choctaw-to-Choctaw messages in their native tongue. The experiment was successful and thought to have helped turn the tide of the engagement which was an attempt to withdraw two companies of troops. A captured German soldier later verified that the German army was confused by the communication technique.
Thereafter, the Choctaw were disbursed to different companies in order to allow them communicate with each other. After the success of the small and limited trial, the United States endeavored to set up a training program, but the war ended less than a month later, and the program did not begin.
The Choctaw Nation, among the other tribes, had been historically civil to the United States depsite hardships imposed upon them by the government, including the loss of land, forced relocation and the like, yet they still volunteered. They were however not the only Native participants in World War I. When the War offered opportunities for Native tribes to volunteer for the United States military, it is estimated that around at least 1,000 individuals from the twenty-six tribes responded, including dozens of Choctaw. This came at a time in the United States when Native Americans were not citizens. Many tribes had separate nations within the confines of the United States on land that was allotted to them for their reservations. On June 2, 1924, the so-called Indian Citizenship Act was passed by the United States Congress, granting citizenship to all Native Americans who were born in the United States.
With all of the foregoing in mind, the Choctaw experiment was quite effective in World War I and is thought to have given rise to the use of other Native languages in later conflicts. By World War II, the concept would be extended to other tribes, including Comanche, Hopi and the Navajo.
(Image credit: The Choctaw Nation)
There were fewer than two dozen Choctaw code talkers. The Choctaw Nation recognized these individuals in 1995 when it placed a granite monument dedicated to them at the Choctaw Capital Building in Tuskahoma, Oklahoma, an unincorporated community in Pusmataha County in the southeastern part of the state. In November of 2008, the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 was enacted by Congress to recognize all Native American code talkers who served in the United States military as early as World War I. The Act recognizes all tribes other than the Navajo, who were already recognized by earlier legislation.
[Paul Mosley narrates this post here.]
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