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The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II

[ Native American Studies ]

The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II

By William C. Meadows

Drawing on interviews with all surviving members of the Comanche Code Talkers, their original training officer, and fellow soldiers, as well as military records and news accounts, William C. Meadows follows the group from their recruitment and training to their active duty in World War II and on through their postwar lives up to the present.

2003

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6 x 9 | 320 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-75274-0

Among the allied troops that came ashore in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, were thirteen Comanches in the 4th Infantry Division, 4th Signal Company. Under German fire they laid communications lines and began sending messages in a form never before heard in Europe—coded Comanche. For the rest of World War II, the Comanche Code Talkers played a vital role in transmitting orders and messages in a code that was never broken by the Germans.

This book tells the full story of the Comanche Code Talkers for the first time. Drawing on interviews with all surviving members of the unit, their original training officer, and fellow soldiers, as well as military records and news accounts, William C. Meadows follows the group from their recruitment and training to their active duty in World War II and on through their postwar lives up to the present. He also provides the first comparison of Native American code talking programs, comparing the Comanche Code Talkers with their better-known Navajo counterparts in the Pacific and with other Native Americans who used their languages, coded or not, for secret communication. Meadows sets this history in a larger discussion of the development of Native American code talking in World Wars I and II, identifying two distinct forms of Native American code talking, examining the attitudes of the American military toward Native American code talkers, and assessing the complex cultural factors that led Comanche and other Native Americans to serve their country in this way.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes on the Comanche Sound System by Jean O. Charney
  • Chapter 1: The Origins of Native American Code Talking
  • Chapter 2: Native American Veterans and Code Talkers in World War II
  • Chapter 3: "Get him back on that scale and weigh him again!"
  • Chapter 4: "Utekwapa naka: I hear what you say."
  • Chapter 5: Fighting Po'sataiboo': Crazy White Man
  • Chapter 6: "Numurekwa'etuu: Comanche Speakers!"
  • Appendix A: Members of Company E, 142d Infantry, Thirty-sixth Division, World War I
  • Appendix B: World War I Choctaw Code Talkers
  • Appendix C: Organization of the Fourth Infantry Division, 1941-1945
  • Appendix D: Combat Narrative of the Fourth Infantry Division
  • Appendix E: Fourth Infantry Division Campaign (June 6, 1944, to May 8, 1945)
  • Appendix F: Fourth Signal Company Activities, 1940-1945
  • Appendix G: Glossary of Comanche Code Terms
  • Appendix H: Known Native American Code Talkers of World Wars I and II (Tribes, Group Size, Form of Code Talking, and Military Units)
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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On June 6, 1944, D-Day, thirteen Comanches in the Fourth Infantry Division, Fourth Signal Company, made an amphibious landing with thousands of Allied troops along the Utah Beachhead on the Normandy coast of France. While under German fire, they immediately began to lay wire for communications transmission lines and began to send their messages in a form never before heard in Europe, in coded Comanche. During the next eleven months, this small, select group of Native Americans—the Comanche Code Talkers—would play a contributing role in the Allied war effort. They would transmit coded orders and messages in a form that the Germans, Italians, and even other Comanches not trained as code talkers could not understand. The Germans remained perplexed about this code, a form they were never able to break, for many years following the war. The Comanche Code Talkers were a small group of Comanche men who were specially recruited and trained in communications skills and used their native Comanche language to communicate critical messages during World War II.

The Numunuu

Of all of the Plains tribes, the Numunuu, meaning "People" or "The People" (often spelled by Anglos as "Numina," and popularly known as the Comanches), are one of the most well known by name (Richardson 1933; Wallace and Hoebel 1952; Kavanagh 1996), but have long been one of the least understood in terms of actual cultural content. Originally a part of the Numic-speaking Shoshone from Wyoming, the Numunuu, or Comanches, separated and migrated southward in the mid- to late seventeenth century. By the early to mid-eighteenth century, the Comanches had gained firm control of much of Texas, southwestern Oklahoma, and portions of eastern New Mexico. The seminal role played by the Comanches in the military and political development of Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico during 1706-1875 was enormously significant. During this period, the Comanches were integrally involved in the evolving competition for trade with the Spanish, French, and, later, Mexicans and Americans. Economically, the Comanche language had long been of great importance as a trade language in the Southern Plains. Throughout much of the 1700s and 1800s, the Comanche language served as a lingua franca for much of the intertribal and Indian-Anglo trade in the region. A mobile hunting-gathering population, the Comanches possessed a strong warrior ethos, and for men the means to social status were largely acquired through a war record (Meadows 1999). In prereservation times, the Comanches are better viewed as a number of linguistically and culturally related tribes (generally described as divisions), as they never comprised a single political or geographically centralized entity until after entrance onto a reservation (Kavanagh 1996). After more than 150 years of warfare, competition with numerous other tribes and Anglo nations, and disease, the last remaining autonomous bands of Comanches were forced onto the collective Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Reservation in southwestern Oklahoma in 1875. What followed were decades of status as governmental wards, forced reduction of their lands, inadequate food, mandatory boarding schools, denial of citizenship and civil rights, continual broken treaties and legal agreements, forced allotment of their remaining lands, and an Anglo-based assimilationist war against their culture, religion, and language.

Sixty-five years later the United States Army came seeking the aid of the Comanches and their language in preparation for World War II. The Comanches had numerous reasons to resent the Taiboo' (Anglos). But in spite of all of the past experiences and the often paternalistic treatment of the Comanches by the government, when the call of duty came, they, like other Native American populations, patriotically joined in the defense of America. Prior to their recruitment, the Comanches had no idea of the ultimately unique role that they and their language would play in the outcome of that war. There was no way they could have known that they would be selected to carry out highly specialized communications service that would be unique in the European campaign. The Comanches represent a population whose loyalty to their people and the American country was unswerving in its devotion, and they were unhesitant in their decision to make the necessary sacrifices called for in the Second World War.

While many works have focused upon the broad impacts that World War II held for Native Americans, few works have focused on individual communities or topics, and even fewer have included accounts from Native Americans themselves. One of the best works on Native Americans in World War II (Bernstein 1991) is strictly based on Anglo archival materials and demonstrates no input from Native American veterans. Most studies concerning the role of Native American Code Talkers in World War II focus only upon the Navajo; however, several other tribes participated in similar fashion.

This book traces the development and history of Native American code talking, beginning with the Oklahoma Choctaws in World War I. I then focus on the United States armed forces' decision to use Native American code talkers in World War II, examining the development of the Comanche and Navajo Code Talker programs. The Comanche Code Talkers who served as communications operators in the European theater of World War II were the first organized native code-talking unit in World War II. As cryptology, World Wars I and II, and United States military communications are all enormous topics, this work does not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of these subjects, only a general background for understanding the role of Native American code talkers in World Wars I and II and those events in which the Comanche Code Talkers were involved and for which documentation exists. Because the Comanche Code Talkers were only involved in the operations extending from France through Germany, I do not address the North African and Sicilian campaigns. While select aspects of the European theater are discussed, they are largely in relation to the regions in which the Comanches served. Some of the ins and outs of signals/intelligence work during World War II, and the experiences collected from the emic perspective of the code talkers who remain alive—what they experienced, what they thought was important about their service, and how they felt about their experiences—form the content upon which much of this work focuses. This work is the story of a number of young Choctaw and Comanche men, their experiences as code talkers, and their unique contribution in military service in World Wars I and II, and how their experiences relate to Comanche and larger Native American service in the U.S. military. For more comprehensive accounts of the European theater of World War II, the reader may refer to other works, such as Kahn (1967), MacDonald (1969), Weigley (1981), and Stetson Conn's (1963) nine-volume United States Army in the World War II: The History of the European Theater of Operations. For a thorough history of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Branch, see Raines (1996).

Context and Theory

This work is interdisciplinary, emphasizing historical and firsthand ethnographic data, while addressing theoretical concerns of dependency theory, the Native American martial ethos, processes behind Native American militarization and armed forces service, Native American military syncretism, and United States armed forces attitudes toward Indian servicemen as communications operators. Most authors attempting studies of Native Americans in World War II have essentially explained Indian entrance into the military as an attempt to legitimize themselves as American citizens. This work demonstrates clearly that this process of militarization is far more complex than most Native American scholars realize. As it affected the Comanche Code Talkers, the militarization context is a reflection of the larger regional processes that I have found regarding service in World Wars I and II for most Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache veterans and their traditional military society structures (Meadows 1995), and that Tom Holm (1996) has found for Native American Vietnam veterans collectively.

Theoretically, the Comanche Code Talkers serve as a case study which demonstrates that Native American motivations for enlisting in World War II and many other conflicts take complex, multifaceted, yet largely culturally based forms rather than the primarily assimilationist forms proposed in prior historical works relying on dependency theory. Native Americans did not join the armed forces in World Wars I and II solely to prove or to legitimize themselves as American citizens; many already knew that they held dual citizenship as members of their respective tribes and as American citizens via the allotment process, the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, and the 1936 Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act. As this work will point out, most joined for a complex combination of: (1) traditional sociocultural influences (warrior-based themes), (2) acculturative influences (boarding school), (3) contemporary economic factors (employment), and (4) patriotism for the defense of their own lands, peoples, and the United States. The opportunity to (5) use their unique linguistic skills and to (6) remain in a select Native American unit with fellow Comanche kinsmen provided two additional incentives for these men during World War II. As with other Native Americans in United States military service, the Comanche Code Talkers demonstrate how a group of individuals syncretized native concepts with military service in a basically foreign institution while maintaining a strong sense of their own ethnic identity—a uniquely Comanche sense of identity. In doing so, they gave service in the United States military a meaning far beyond that of simply legitimizing themselves as American citizens.

This work also provides historical documentation that will more clearly convey the temporal developments and historical dimensions involving the Choctaw, Comanche, Navajo, and other Native American code talkers. This work distinguishes two distinct types of Native American code talking and clarifies many of the larger developments of Native American code talkers as a whole. I also demonstrate that the full potential for using Native American code talkers in World War II was unrecognized at the logistical levels of the United States armed forces and therefore underutilized.

These were but a few Comanche men participating in an amphibious landing of seven thousand ships transporting 250,000 troops of American, British, Canadian, Free French, Polish, Norwegian, and other nationalities who began their advance on five strategic beachheads. In a war in which millions of men and women served, one might ask, what is so significant about a small group of, originally seventeen and later thirteen, soldiers? What makes the contributions of such a small number of men significant given the massive scope of the war? Although these soldiers underwent much of the same military training as their peers, and performed many of the same duties, they were uniquely different from most Anglo soldiers. In addition to their contrasting cultural background and upbringing, these men brought a rare and special skill to be used as a weapon in their military service—their native language. By using their native language in a coded form, thirteen Comanche Code Talkers were able to send communications throughout their division that were faster than any of the then-existing Anglo coded forms and that were never broken by the Axis forces. In addition, the Comanches represent one of at least nineteen Native American groups known to have used various coded and noncoded forms of their native language for United States armed forces military communications in World Wars I and II. As will be demonstrated, only the conservative policies of the upper echelons of the United States Army regarding the ability of Native Americans as communications operators prevented the Comanches and other tribal groups in the European theater from contributing to the degree that the Navajos in the Marine Corps did in the Pacific theater of operations. In examining the development of Native American code talkers in the United States armed forces, I provide data demonstrating that Native Americans as code talkers held greater potential in terms of available numbers, diversity of languages, and possibility for rotation than was either realized or used in the war. Excepting select aspects of their respective backgrounds, the primary differences between the experiences of the Comanche and Navajo Code Talkers in World War II were those of military policy, unit size, and the extent of their use.

Background

Three factors of a personal nature led me toward this study. First, coming from a family containing many veterans, I grew up hearing of their experiences in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and have always had an interest in military topics and veterans. Second, my early exposure to and participation in Native American dance, the evolution of the contemporary Plains Indian powwow from earlier military societies, and the associated honoring of veterans in these activities only strengthened my interests. Third, upon becoming familiar with this topic and discovering that only a few of the code talkers remained alive, I realized the urgency of time if this project were ever to be undertaken.

During research for my doctoral dissertation (Meadows 1995), I conducted ethnographic fieldwork on nineteenth- and twentieth-century military societies and veterans' issues among the Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche of southwestern Oklahoma. During my research I was fortunate to meet Mr. Forrest Kassanavoid, an extremely knowledgeable elder, a fluent Comanche speaker, a head man of the Comanche War Dance Society, and a World War II veteran. During one interview, Forrest told me he had served as a "Comanche Code Talker" during the war, and he proceeded to discuss this topic for the next hour. During subsequent visits with Forrest he began to relate to me the detailed history of the Comanche Code Talkers from their formation in late 1940 to the present. As I began to learn more of the code talkers' experiences, I realized that they were a largely unrecognized and undocumented subject. Although I was busy with the research for my dissertation, I realized that this was a subject that deserved serious attention. Considering the small number of remaining code talkers, their ages, and the almost total lack of documentation available on the subject, I felt the situation was urgent and decided to make the time to record their experiences. When I suggested to Forrest that we continue to document the group's history for a possible publication, he responded favorably and encouraged me to "work up" some material on them. Interviews with the other surviving members provided additional materials. Although several small grant requests to fund this research were turned down, I considered the personal expense justified and more than worthwhile and managed to give some monetary compensation to the members as the work progressed.

Sources

The research for this work combines anthropological and historical methodologies. The material for this work was very interdisciplinary, involving firsthand ethnographic fieldwork with the basic information obtained from the actual Comanche Code Talkers themselves and archival materials from Native American history, United States military records, United States Army organizational and signals intelligence data, newspapers, and appropriate secondary literature sources to test pertinent ideas and hypotheses. Archival research produced many vital, but highly fragmentary, sources, often in the form of newspaper articles and brief military-based publications. Most published sources on Native American code talkers focus only on the Navajo; the Comanches are generally either mentioned in passing or, more often than not, not at all. Some sources even incorrectly and unsupportedly state that the Comanches did not serve as code talkers. Indeed, the only formal sources on the Comanche Code Talkers are by one of the unit's own members, the late Roderick Red Elk (1991, 1992), who published brief accounts both of his personal experiences and those of the group. Inquiry and correspondence with army and Marine Corps military archives provided prompt, but minimal, material. No prior comprehensive account of the Comanche Code Talkers' experiences exists. To achieve a thorough account of this group, an ethnohistorical approach combining elements of anthropological fieldwork and archival research was necessary. Whereas most definitions of ethnohistory focus on combining archival and library research with the insights gained from using an anthropological concept of culture, my approach differs. My ethnohistorical methodology emphasizes significant firsthand ethnographic and linguistic fieldwork and extensive archival research to obtain as thorough and holistic an approach to a subject as possible.

The greatest hindrance encountered in this project was time. Only five of the original seventeen Comanche Code Talkers and their commanding training officer were living at the time I began my research. The vast majority of the information contained in this study was obtained from my fieldwork in the form of audio and video tape-recorded interviews with the three surviving members who saw combat action (Forrest Kassanavoid, Roderick Red Elk, and Charles Chibitty), and through correspondence with their training officer, Major General Hugh F. Foster Jr., U.S. Army (Retired). An interview with Albert Nahquaddy Jr. (one of two surviving members who were trained as code talkers but discharged prior to service overseas) provided additional information about the period from the group's origin through their stateside training. Finally, an audio recorded archival interview with the late Mr. Haddon Codynah, another of the code talkers who saw combat action, added a sixth voice to the work. Although six of eighteen consultants is statistically a good sample and their accounts clearly address most of the group's experiences, the ability to have worked with other, now deceased members would only have enriched this material further. However, to have waited any longer would have resulted in losing much of the remaining knowledge concerning the code talkers. In hindsight this decision proved sound, as three of the four remaining members passed away before this manuscript came to print.

Indian support and encouragement, both from Comanches and other tribes, were very positive during this project. Sharp criticism by two earlier non-Indian reviewers was also very beneficial. After reading the manuscript one military historian nearly accused me of making up the entire account, responding that he did not believe the Comanches ever served as code talkers, and strenuously criticizing my assertion that sufficient numbers of fluent Native Americans in many tribes existed in World II to have formed other code-talking units. This response led me to provide additional quantitative data to complement my qualitative data, and became the majority of Chapter 2. One Anglo historian stated that after all of the harsh past treatment Indians had received, she found it a "striking irony" that Native Americans found themselves in a position to be useful in wartime communications and would enlist for military service for the reasons I propose. However, as explained by the code talkers themselves, these reasons are supported. Even more ironic is the fact that while this individual writes about Native American veterans, her work shows no evidence of having conducted any firsthand research with them. These criticisms, while largely the result of not working with Native Americans, only allowed me to further improve and enhance this manuscript.

By the spring of 1996, what was intended as an article had grown to a book-length manuscript. One of my personal tenets in conducting anthropological and Native American research is to allow my consultants to read and discuss drafts of my manuscripts prior to their publication. That summer I sent drafts of the manuscript to Mr. Kassanavoid, Mr. Red Elk, Mr. Chibitty, Mrs. Judy Allen, and Major General Foster, who provided constructive reviews and comments. Their responses were favorable. I had already decided to dedicate the book to the seventeen Comanche Code Talkers. Because Forrest Kassanavoid had played such an instrumental role in participating in and encouraging my research on the Comanche Code Talkers, I had also decided to include a special dedication of the work to him. On September 20, 1996, I received a phone call from Major General Foster informing me that Forrest was gravely ill. Forrest was undergoing cancer treatments when I last visited him the previous July. Later that afternoon after my classes, I called to check on him, planning to inform him of the dedication. However, before I could tell him, his wife Marian informed me that he had died at home in Indiahoma, Oklahoma, less than two hours earlier that afternoon. Everyone who knew Forrest lost a wonderful and cherished friend. Forrest was a tremendous friend to many people, Indian and non-Indian alike, and an extremely knowledgeable elder. During this project he always declined to accept any money I offered for his help. He was enthusiastic just to see the research undertaken and to contribute to it. I have therefore included a special dedication to him to recognize and honor his friendship, enthusiasm, and the tremendous input upon which this work so heavily rests.

Format and Content

My goal is to convey an overview of the experiences, throughout their lives, of a small group of Native American veterans who performed a unique form of service in a divisional-level communications system in the European theater during World War II. It is an inspiring and little-known piece of history. I have tried to detail the human experience of these men and relate it to the larger significance of the duties they undertook as code talkers. An additional goal is to honor and give recognition and historical clarity to these gracious men who, having made such a unique contribution to the United States armed forces, were only recently recognized for their dedication and sacrifice. Another focus of this work is historical clarity regarding the actual development of Native American code talkers in World Wars I and II, which in earlier works has often been presented inaccurately.

The format of this work is largely chronological. Chapter 1 introduces the origin of codes, military code formation, prior studies of Native American military literature and code talking, native motivations for service in World War I, the development of the first Native American code talkers (the Choctaws) in World War I, and other native groups which provided coded and noncoded military communications in their native languages during World War I. This chapter concludes by offering the first formal definition of the two distinct forms of Native American code talking. Chapter 2 explores a national-level debate among the branches of the United States armed forces concerning the possibility and potential for using Native American code talkers in World War II. Linguistic and demographic data indicate that the potential for using Native American code talkers was not fully recognized and was underutilized by the United States armed forces at this time. An examination of the distribution of Native American code talkers in World War II concludes this chapter. Chapter 3 covers the prewar experiences of the Comanches: their recruitment, basic training, communications training, assignments, code formation, and athletic and cultural activities. Chapter 4 briefly describes the communications role the Comanche Code Talkers performed in relation to the larger army military structure and organization from 1940 to 1945. Chapter 5 relates the code talkers' actual combat experiences and use of the code from D-Day, June 6, 1944, to the end of the European war in May 1945. Chapter 6 concludes by focusing upon the postwar experiences of the code talkers, including their educational, professional, and cultural pursuits; public acknowledgment; and the Comanche Code Talkers' own reflections on their military service and the importance of native linguistic retention. It also includes the first extensive comparison between two units of Native American code talkers (Comanche and Navajo).

While numerous sources have been written on the Navajo Code Talkers, only a relatively small amount of this material conveys the Navajos' own thoughts, reflections, and interpretations of the events surrounding their military role. In an attempt to improve upon this approach, and because only a few of the members remained alive at the time I began my research, I chose a broader, more interdisciplinary, and dialogical method for this work. I have used extensive interview materials and direct quotes to bring forth the participants' own explanations, assessments, and reflections about various portions of their experiences as code talkers. While much of the military history surrounding code talkers has focused on the more serious and strictly "historical" developments of their experiences, such accounts have often left out many of the more day-to-day and even humorous, dangerous, and compelling experiences that were a part of the larger story. I have chosen to include a variety of these materials to provide a more well-rounded, realistic, and accurate account of the code talkers' experiences. I wish to show the Comanche Code Talkers as they were then and are now, and as "they" remembered their experiences. They were a group of young men who underwent a wide range of human experiences and emotions and remain quite modest, yet forthright, in their recollections. Thus, in an effort to make this a more dialogical work, a large amount of quoted materials from personal interviews and correspondence—focusing on the subjects stressed by the remaining code talkers—is used to allow the actual participants to tell much of their own stories themselves.

Although initially choosing to quote the Comanche Code Talkers verbatim from my interviews with them, I later chose to lightly edit these quoted materials for several reasons. Because most humans do not speak extemporaneously in a fluid, cohesive, and nonrepetitive fashion, spoken prose may sound wonderful, but it usually looks terrible in print. Repetitious use of the same words and ideas and frequent interjections detract from the fluidity of the speaking and, more importantly, from the meaning of the code talkers' statements. I have edited verbatim texts as lightly as possible to reduce them to clear, straightforward statements, eliminating repetitions of the same words and ideas in the same situation while retaining the basic ideas as well as the style of the speaker. I have cited sources as thoroughly as possible to identify them for future scholars. Some materials and citations have been kept anonymous for reasons of privacy.

This work is directed toward a wide audience including those interested in Choctaw and Comanche history, twentieth-century Native American history, World Wars I and II, Native American military and veterans' studies, military history, and signals intelligence. I have tried to find the right balance among a broad multidisciplinary approach, scholarly objectivity, and a deep and abiding respect for the life experiences of my friends and consultants. Because much of the recognition for the Comanche Code Talkers came after the majority of the members had passed on, this work is directed at documenting and honoring their service. It is the author's hope that the families of the Comanche Code Talkers and future generations of Comanches will find this work worthwhile.

William C. Meadows is Professor of Anthropology and Native American Studies at Missouri State University.

"Of all the books on Native American service in the U.S. armed forces, this is the best.... Readers will find the story of the Comanche Code Talkers compelling, humorous, thought-provoking, and inspiring."
—Tom Holm, author of Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War

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