Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Choctaw Precursors

The idea of using Native Americans to relay coded messages during wartime actually started in 1918 in the Argonne forest of northern France. Defeat seemed imminent for the Allies at the hands of the powerful German army. American commanders had been directed to capture a German stronghold at Forest Ferme. A surprise attack offered the only hope for success, but the Germans had managed to intercept and decode every Allied message.

The solution to the problem was discovered quite by accident. An American captain overheard two Choctaw soldiers speaking in their native tongue, and an idea surfaced.The captain inquired as to the number of Choctaws in the battalion. Eight men who spoke fluent Choctaw were discovered. To test his idea the captain had one Choctaw translate a message into his language and relay it to company headquarters using the field telephone. Another Choctaw at headquarters listened to the message and accurately translated it back to English for the battalion commander.

The experiment was successful, and at least one Choctaw was assigned to each field company headquarters to begin at once to handle communications by field telephone. The Allies achieved victory at Forest Ferme, and the Choctaw code talkers played a major role. The Germans failed to decipher one word. The U.S. government cautioned the Native Americans to keep their role in the war a secret in case American forces in future conflicts had need of them.

German officials identified the language and began making their own plans for "future wars." After the war, during the 1920s and 1930s Germans, saying they were tourists and scholars, visited Native reservations ostensibly to study Native American culture. In fact, they had been sent by their government to learn Native languages. By the time the United States had entered World War II in 1941 most American Indian tribes had been visited and had their languages studied thoroughly. But not the Navajo.

Next: An idea is born.

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