By Sharon Hall
Much has been written about the Navajo code talkers who helped the United States defeat the Japanese in World War II. Less is written or remembered these days, however, about Native Americans who served during World War I. Sadly, all died before being officially recognized for their service.
The United States entered World War I in April of 1917. At the time Native Americans were not yet citizens of the United States, although later granted citizenship in 1924 by an act of Congress. Yet, according to research conducted by the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian over twelve thousand American Indians, representing about one-fourth of the entire male Native American population at that time, were serving their country.
Near the end of the war eight Oklahoma Choctaw men were called upon to help the American Expeditionary Force win several battles in the Mousse-Argonne campaign, according to the Bishinik, official publication of The Choctaw Nation. All were members of the 141st Infantry and surrounded by Germans. Compounding their perilous situation, the enemy had also broken American radio codes.
One day a captain walking around the camp overheard Solomon Lewis and Mitchell Bobb talking in their native language. He took Corporal Lewis aside and asked how many more Choctaw were serving in their battalion. The captain then asked Lewis and Bobb to send a message in their native tongue to Ben Carterby, another Choctaw soldier stationed at headquarters. Carterby received the message and successfully translated it to English for the commander.
Just a few hours later eight men fluent in the Choctaw language were shifted so that at least one of them was stationed in each field company headquarters. Messages were also written in Choctaw and delivered by runners between the companies.
The Choctaw tongue was quite unique and, needless to say, the new code totally flummoxed the Germans. The strategy made a difference and within twenty-four hours the tide turned in favor of the American forces. All of these men served with distinction and honor, Joseph Oklahombi among them.
His name literally meant “man-killer” or “people-killer” in Choctaw – and even today he is still considered the most heroic Oklahoman who served in World War I. As one web site put it, Joseph Oklahombi was a “Choctaw, Doughboy, Code Talker and Mighty Warrior.”
Joseph Oklahombi, a full-blood Choctaw, was born in the Kiamichi Mountains of McCurtain County, Oklahoma Indian Territory. He was married to Agnes Watkins and they had at least one child, Jonah. Most historical accounts about his life begin with his service and bravery during World War I.
According to the Choctaw Code Talkers Association Joseph walked from his home to Idabel, county seat of McCurtain County, to enlist. He joined hundreds of Native Americans, who although not yet citizens of the United States, volunteered to go overseas and fight the Germans.
Private Joseph Oklahombi was assigned to the Thirty-Sixth Division, Company D, 141st Infantry and sent to Europe following training, most likely sometime in the spring of 1918. In October 1918 several Choctaw soldiers, including Joseph, were called upon to send and translate messages in their native tongue to thwart the Germans who had already broken radio codes several times. Choctaw language had no words for such terms as “machine gun” and “casualties”. Instead they used phrases like “little gun shoot fast” and “scalp”.
On October 8 Joseph and twenty-three fellow soldiers who had been cut off from the rest of their company came upon a large group of Germans. Joseph is said to have crossed “No Mans Land” several times going back and forth with coded messages and assisting wounded comrades. For his acts of bravery Joseph was awarded the Silver Cross by General Pershing and the Croix de Guerre from the French.
After returning home from the war Joseph went back to his life as a farmer. While he didn’t talk much about his war experiences, when the world went to war again he was prepared to serve if necessary. As all men of a certain age were required to do so, Joseph registered for the draft in 1942 but was never called to serve. At one point he was offered a Hollywood movie role but turned it down, refusing to leave his home in Oklahoma. His World War I pension wasn’t approved until 1933 ($12 per month) but ended in 1937.
Sadly, Joseph Oklahombi was struck and killed by a truck while walking along a road on April 13, 1960. He was buried with military honors in Yashau Cemetery near Broken Bow, Oklahoma. His name appears along with his fellow Choctaw Code Talkers at the Choctaw War Memorial in Tuskahoma, Pushmataha County, Oklahoma.
All code talkers serving in World War I and II received belated honors in 2002. To find more information about these brave warriors check out the National Archives website for ways to access records needed for genealogical research.
References and Resources:
National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/research/native-americans/military/code-talkers.html
David Woodward, The American Army and the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Choctaw Code Talkers Association: choctawcodetalkersassociation.com
Texas Military Forces Museum: