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The last Comanche codetalker

Charles Chibitty Oklahoma, United States 1921 - 2005

Just days after the chaotic Battle of Normandy broke out in June 1944, a critically important radio message rang out across Allied airwaves: “Five miles to the right of the designated area and five miles inland, the fighting is fierce and we need help.” This in itself was not an unusual wartime message, but unlike others it was not conveyed in English, French, or even intercepted German. It was relayed in the Native American language of Comanche, as part of an operation that would help save the lives of thousands of American and Allied personnel.

The man who spoke that message was Charles Chibitty, a Native American Corporal who, alongside 17 other Native American ‘codetalkers’, was responsible for bewildering intercepting German forces with an unbreakable code drawn from their native Comanche tongue. The language itself was barely understood by only a few academics outside of the Comanche community, and since it was subsequently turned into its own coded dialect, even other Comanche would be unable to decipher the messages. The Germans had no chance.

 

That’s not to say that Nazi forces didn’t attempt to break the code, though. A similar operation had taken place during the First World War, with members of the Choctaw tribes drafted in to send and receive radio messages for Allied forces. Hitler, aware of this group, sent over a team of around 30 undercover anthropologists to learn Native American languages before global war broke out for a second time. They were unsuccessful.

Adding to the complexity of the code was the fact that many military terms had no equivalent in the Comanche language, but they overcame the problem with substitute words. ‘Tank’ became ‘wah-kay-ray’, meaning ‘turtle’, while ‘Adolf Hitler’ became ‘posah-tai-vo’, meaning ‘crazy white man’. Some phrases were more inventive still. ‘Machine gun’ became ‘sewing machine’ because of the similar noise made by both instruments, while bomber aircrafts were described as ‘pregnant airplanes’.

In later interviews, Chibitty made no secret of the irony of the way his language was used. Born in a small tent on November 20th 1921, Chibitty grew up in an era where mainstream society strongly disapproved of Native American culture and language – he was forbidden to speak his native tongue at school, and punished harshly if he did. Yet even in the face of this prejudice, he willingly signed up to the army when he learnt it was seeking Comanche Indians fluent in the language- and the words that Chibitty had been forbidden to speak as a child became an integral factor in the US Army’s success.

 

Assigned to the 22nd Infantry Regiment, Chibitty and his team – all of which made it back to home soil alive, albeit some badly wounded – saw a lot of action during their time as codetalkers, taking part not only in the Normandy landings but also the Battle of the Bulge and other campaigns. He and his unit were among the first Americans to liberate Paris and later to enter Germany.

As the last remaining Comanche codetalker, Chibitty earned numerous medals and awards for his wartime efforts, however, it wasn’t until most of his Comanche comrades had passed away that their contributions were was truly recognised by the military. In 1992, some 47 years after the end of the Second World War, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney presented him with a certificate of appreciation for his service to the country. In 1999, he was honoured in the Hall of Heroes inside the Pentagon for his extraordinary bravery and achievements.

Historians believe that, at a time when Nazi forces were 10 steps ahead of every other complex code ever sent, the Comanche codetalkers’ secret, uncrackable language was responsible for saving thousands of lives.

My language helped win the war, and that makes me proud. Very proud. Charles Chibitty, 2002

We will remember them

Charles Chibitty Oklahoma, United States 1921 - 2005
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