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How Native American Code Talkers Pioneered a New Type of Military Intelligence

In this History.com article by Jesse Greenspan (updated Nov. 5, 2019 after original publication in 2014) - we learn more about the Code Talkers and how an overheard conversation between two Choctaw Indian soldiers serving in World War I led to a code that confounded German forces.

Read an excerpt of the article below and follow the Read More link to view the entire article and a selection of photos on History.com

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“World War I really wasn’t decided until very, very late,” explained William C. Meadows, a Native American studies professor at Missouri State University and expert on code talking. “It wasn’t like World War II where we clearly had them on the run.”

One main problem for the Allies was the Germans’ ability to listen in on their communications and to break their codes, which were generally based on either European languages or mathematical progressions. “We couldn’t keep anything secret,” Allen said. 

An apocryphal story spread around that a German once interrupted a U.S. Signal Corps member sending a message to taunt his use of code words. Sending out human runners proved equally ineffective, since about one in four were captured or killed. And other methods of communications, such as color-coded rockets, electronic buzzers and carrier pigeons, were too limiting, too slow, too unreliable or a combination thereof.

Soon after the Meuse-Argonne campaign got underway, a company commander in the 36th Division reportedly happened to overhear two of his soldiers conversing in Choctaw. In a flash, he recognized the military potential of the language, essentially unknown to the Germans, and persuaded his superiors to post a Choctaw speaker at various field company headquarters. 

On October 26, 1918, the Choctaws were put to use for the first time as part of the withdrawal of two companies from the front. Having completed this mission without mishap, they then played a major role the following two days in an attack on a strongly fortified German position called Forest Ferme. 

“The enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages,” Colonel A.W. Bloor later wrote in an official report. The tide of battle turned within 24 hours, according to Bloor, and within 72 hours the Allies were on full attack.

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