Veteran’s Day is approaching. And it’s a special one. World War I ended 100 years ago on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. First celebrated as Armistice Day to recognize the “war to end all wars,” the holiday became known as Veteran’s Day after World War II.
Did you know that Choctaw soldiers played an important part in the end of WWI and therefore Veteran’s Day? Since November is also Native American Heritage Month, it’s a good time to tell this story.
In Forest Ferme, France in October, 1918, Private Mitchell Bobb delivered a message via field telephone to Ben Carterby at battalion headquarters. The Germans were listening. Furthermore, the Americans knew they were listening because the Germans had broken every code the Americans had used so far. This time was different. The Germans were baffled to hear a language they had never heard before. They couldn’t break this code because American soldiers of the Choctaw Nation were transmitting important information in the Choctaw language.
Within 24 hours, the Americans began launching successful surprise attacks. The Germans retreated within 72 hours. Americans won several key battles in the Mousse-Argonne campaign, resulting in the end of war within the month.
The Choctaw people, originally from the southeastern United States, had been forced to relocate to Indian Territory in the 1830s. Indian Territory later became the state of Oklahoma. In World War I, Choctaw soldiers from southeastern Oklahoma were among 12,000 Native American soldiers who wouldn’t even be recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924.
The use of Choctaw marked the first time an American Indian language was used by U.S. armed forces as a code. World War I Choctaw soldiers were the first code talkers. Ironically, at home the government was trying to destroy the very language that made all this possible.
Indian boarding schools were established soon after the Civil War to assimilate native youth into American (white) culture. Or to paraphrase the founder of the Carlisle School, Brigadier General Richard Pratt, boarding schools would “kill the Indian…save the man.”
Large numbers of Native American children were forcibly removed from their families to attend these schools, where among other things, they were forbidden to speak their native language. Some children returned home not knowing how to communicate with their families. Imagine what might have happened had Ben Carterby, Mitchell Bobb, and the other Choctaw code talkers not been able to speak Choctaw?
The success of the code talkers in World War I led the U.S. military to expand the program in World War II–Choctaw, Comanche, Cherokee, Hopi, and other indigenous languages. The Marines had great success with Diné or Navajo code talkers.
It would take over 50 years after the end of World War II for Native American code talkers to receive recognition and medals of honor from the U.S. government (the first 23 years was because the program was still classified by the military).
This Veteran’s Day, let’s thank ALL veterans for their service, but let’s particularly remember the Choctaw code talkers who a century ago were instrumental in the end of World War I. Yakoke. Thank you.