By Franklin FisherNovember 22, 2019
FORT BENNING, Ga. - An audience of Soldiers and civilians here Nov. 20 got a vivid demonstration of how Native American "Code Talkers" during the two world wars used their tribal languages to send messages in codes the enemy could not crack.
It came during an observance of Native American Heritage Month that highlighted the role of the Code Talkers, and was presented by two guest speakers, both from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
The observance, before a mostly Soldier audience in the Derby Auditorium of McGinnis-Wickam Hall, was hosted by the Henry Caro Noncommissioned Officer Academy, part of Fort Benning's U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence.
The Code Talkers were Native American service members whose tribal languages - scarcely understood outside their tribal communities - were used to send messages that left enemy codebreakers baffled.
Use of Code Talkers came about by happenstance in World War I, when Army officers in war-torn France heard Native American Soldiers conversing in their tribal tongues, and saw potential battlefield advantage in sending messages in those languages, according to Theodore "Ted" Isham, the first of the speakers. Isham has served as Historic Preservation Officer for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
With the help of slides on a projection screen, Isham gave a brief account of the history of the Code Talkers, as well as examples of some of the Native American words that were used.
The Navajo term for a colonel was "atsah-besh-le-gai," or silver eagle. Their term for submarine was "besh-lo," for iron fish. Isham also gave examples from his own Muscogee (Creek) language. Grenade was "svtv rakko," for apple. A tank was "locv cvto," for rock turtle. Bullets were "re," for arrows. And, in an example that drew scattered chuckles from the audience, a colonel was "este fuswv," for bird man.
The success of the using the native languages in World War I led to a wider and more structured use of the Code Talkers in World War II, Isham said.
"So in World War II this idea was brought back up," Isham said. "It was much more formalized in World War II because they had time to think about what they needed to do. In World War I it was discovered pretty much by accident."
In World War II the great majority of Code Talkers served in the Pacific and were Navajo, but Code Talkers came from many other tribes as well. They were used in the European theater, including in North Africa and in the Normandy landings, but far less frequently than in the Pacific because it was suspected German agents had learned some of the tribal languages shortly before World War II.
After summarizing the Code Talkers' history, Isham turned to the demonstration, which he said would use a mock artillery fire mission to show how code talking worked.
With him onstage was an original World War II field telephone, and some yards off to the side of the auditorium was another one. A Soldier with him gave the fire direction commands in English, which Isham then repeated in his native Muscogee (Creek).
"Fire mission! Adjust Grid one-two-three-four-five," the Soldier would say in English. Isham repeated the commands in the tribal language, which were then repeated on the receiving end in English, as commands to the firing battery.
To add a touch of humor, each time the "Fire" command was given, a rolled-up T-shirt was hurled out to the audience, representing an outgoing artillery round. Whoever caught it was free to keep it.
Isham was followed at the microphone by Second Chief Lewis Johnson, who serves as Assistant Chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
Johnson referred to Isham's presentation, which had included a projection slides that read: "Why Did American Indians Volunteer to Join the Fight?"
"I'm gonna share something," said Johnson. "Because we get asked that a lot, because of the history of our ancestors have lived through for so many years."
Saying all people are born to a mother and that mothers deserve protection, Johnson said devotion to country was similar.
"And as we look at these United States of America, this is our mother, and everybody who calls this place their home from this time on...May we always defend and sustain our freedoms that we have," he said.
Among those in the audience was Staff Sgt. Tamerisk Witherspoon, a drill sergeant with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment, part of MCoE's 194th Armor Brigade.
She had not heard of the Code Talkers before but found the event "very impressive" and the demonstration "awesome."
"I mean they can explain it to us all day long, but to be able to see it and experience it, for them to put the codes up on the screen and us being able to kinda read along or follow along with it, it just helps you better understand, it helps it better soak in versus just hearing it sometimes," said Witherspoon.
But what intrigued her most was the question of why Native Americans had served in the military, especially given that for a long time they had not been accorded U.S. citizenship.
"So that was actually a question that was on my mind before I even seen it up on the screen," she said. "But when they answered it, it kind of just shined a light on it, you know? Like, we're all here for a bigger purpose and whether or not we can be seen as equals right now, like we're still here to help and then do our part in what we feel like is our bigger purpose in life."