DURANT – When Nuchi Nashoba was a little girl she would look up at the oval-shaped, sepia photograph of her great-grandfather, Ben Carterby, a full-blood Choctaw from Ida. In the picture he wore his U.S. Army uniform from World War I. She did not know then that he was a Choctaw Code Talker, or that she would someday be president of the Choctaw Code Talkers Association.
The year 2018 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first Choctaw Code Talkers. The board of directors of the Choctaw Code Talkers Association, presided over by Nashoba for the past eight years, is coordinating a number of ways to acknowledge and celebrate the historical achievement of these brave young men who made a difference in World War I.
The Choctaw Code Talkers Association is not an official organization of the Choctaw Nation. It is a 501-C3, or non-profit, meaning it must raise its own funds to operate. “All of the board members have jobs,” Nashoba said, “and we do the association’s work without pay.”
Nashoba is grateful for the contributions and support of Chief Gary Batton, State Rep. Justin Humphry, state officials Chad Pendley and Ashly Hankins, former Chief Gregory E. Pyle, and former State Rep. R.C. Pruett. She notes especially that Judy Allen, Historic Officer of the Choctaw Nation, has been instrumental in helping keep the Code Talker projects going.
For a group that relies on volunteers and donations to get the job done, it has some major accomplishments to its credit with more on the way.
The association worked closely with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to get a 60-mile stretch of Oklahoma Highway 3 named the “WWI Choctaw Code Talkers Highway.” It was dedicated Sept. 6, 2013.
“It runs from the exit to Antlers to Broken Bow,” Nashoba said. There are plans for two granite markers, one at each end for the highway. “One granite marker is being created at present. It will be placed in Antlers. We need to raise funds for the second; that will be placed in Broken Bow,” she said.
Plans are already in the works, Nashoba said, for recognition of all of the Choctaw Code Talkers (there were four in World War II) during the Choctaw Nation Veterans Day Ceremony in 2018.
One of the biggest undertakings – and successes – came in the last session of the Oklahoma legislature. That spring, both the Oklahoma House and Senate passed a bill to name 23 county bridges in southeastern Oklahoma after the Code Talkers.
“The bill takes effect Nov. 1, 2017,” Nashoba said. “The first unveiling is expected to be the Joseph Oklahombi Bridge in Bryan County. The date will be as soon as possible after Nov. 1.”
The Choctaw Code Talkers pioneered the use of American Indian languages as military code.
“Their story began with a chance meeting, and an overheard conversation,” Nashoba said.
World War I was raging in Europe, when Solomon Louis, a young doughboy, as American soldiers were called, saw someone from home. It was another Choctaw from southeastern Oklahoma. The two Choctaws began talking in the Native tongue.
“Halito! Chim achukma?”
“An Army captain was nearby and heard them, and realized the two understood what the other was saying, but no one else could,” Nashoba said. He approached and asked them if they knew of other soldiers who could speak their language. They did.
A total of 19 soldiers were located who were fluent in Choctaw and English. They immediately formed the first unit of military Code Talkers to use an American Indian language. It was in October 1918, midway through the bloody 47-day Battle of the Argonne Forest in France. The Allied offensive, with its revitalized communication arm forced through the final campaign of World War I, running along the entire Western Front.
Up to that point, the German Army was unstoppable in its ability to tap into Allied communications lines, learning of troop locations, supply routes, and military plans. As “radio talkers” and as “runners” (with messages written in Choctaw), often in front-line combat, the Choctaw Code Talkers used their language to relay messages among Allied troops. It worked. Their language confused Germany’s crack code breakers. It was the only code that was never broken by the other side. With the help of Choctaw Code Talkers, the U.S. and the Allies were victorious over Germany, bringing World War I to an end on Nov. 11, 1918.
Their Choctaw heritage provided the young men a tool that would impact the outcome of the deadliest war the world had seen up to that time – 110,000 American soldiers died. Though some of the Code Talkers were battle scarred (Victor Brown received a citation from President Woodrow Wilson after being wounded and scorched with mustard gas), all but one of the Choctaws, Noel Johnson, made it home to Oklahoma.
“He was killed. The family was notified, and the body remains in France, location unknown,” Nashoba said.
On the home front, the irony was all too obvious. The Choctaw Nation had been part of Indian Territory, which became the state of Oklahoma only a decade earlier. Though it would be 1924 before the United States would allow all American Indians citizenship and the right to vote, when the United States took up arms in the spring of 1917, Choctaws volunteered to wear the uniform of the American soldier and fight in “The Great War.”
For security reasons, the exploits of the World War I Code Talkers was classified by the U.S. government. The few who knew, kept quiet. Many of the Choctaw Code Talkers’ own families had no idea of their heroics. They were – good soldiers.
But with World War II and more Choctaw Code Talkers called into action, along with other Native speakers including the Comanche and Navajo tribes, word spread.
The Choctaw Nation recognized the Code Talkers posthumously with Choctaw Medals of Valor at a ceremony in 1986.
In 1989, Nashoba said, France thanked the Choctaw Code Talkers by bestowing its highest recognition on them, the Fifth Republic’s Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Merite (or Knight of the National Order of Merit).
In 1995, a monument was erected, and a few years later was replaced by the current Choctaw War Memorial that sits on the Historic Choctaw Capitol Building grounds in Tushka Homma. It includes a special section about the Code Talkers.
On Nov. 15, 2008, The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-420), was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The act recognizes every Native American Code Talker who served in the United States military during World War I or World War II (with the exception of the already-awarded Navajo). The Choctaw Nation was presented with a Congressional Gold Medal, which is retained by the Smithsonian Institution. Silver medal duplicates went to each Code Talker.
The Choctaw Code Talkers
The 19 known Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I are:
Benjamin Franklin Colbert
George Edwin Davenport
Joseph Harvey Davenport
James (Jimpson) Morrison Edwards
Tobias William Frazier
Benjamin Wilburn Hampton
Otis Wilson Leader
Solomon Bond Louis
Charles Walter Veach
The four known Choctaw code talkers of World War II are: