The feature film “Wind Talkers” was probably the first time most people heard that Native Americans, members of the Navajo Tribe in the movie’s plot, were pressed into service during World War II to create secure communications. The Native People, speaking their own language, foiled efforts by both the Germans and Japanese to listen in.
But the Navajos were far from the only tribespeople involved in the project, and World War II wasn’t the first time Native Americans were pressed into service to provide secure voice communications during wartime.
During World War I, the men of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, comprised of National Guardsmen from Texas and Oklahoma, had only just arrived in France when they were suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into combat when a portion of the French line collapsed and Germans poured into rear areas.
During the confusion, an officer of the 142nd overheard some of his men talking back and forth in a strange language, which turned out to be Choctaw. The army was suffering because its communications were being intercepted by the Germans who were tapping their landline phones, and the officer’s bright idea was to put Choctaws at both ends of the unit’s telephone lines to translate from English to Choctaw at one end and back into English at the other. The idea proved a rousing success.
It was so successful that according to the U.S. Army, after the war, Germany sent some scholars to the U.S. to covertly study Native American languages in case another war broke out, but the government discovered their aim and sent them back home.
The reason the code talkers were so effective was that of all the Indian languages, only the Cherokees had a written language, famously developed by Sequoia. As a result, the only way to learn any of their languages was to live with the tribes, which pretty much limited the opportunities to missionaries and government officials.
Ironically, the U.S. government had done its level best in a shameful effort to eradicate the languages and cultures of Native People, going so far as to punish students at government-run Indian schools who were caught speaking their own languages.
By the time World War II broke out, their best efforts to stamp out the Indians’ languages had—fortunately—failed and the idea of ‘code talkers’ was quickly revived. The Navajos who served with the U.S. Marines are the best known code talkers, but both the Marines and the Army also made use of servicemen from the Comanche, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Choctaw, Creek, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Seminole, Oneida, Pawnee, Sac and Fox, and both Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes as well as many others. In all, some 33 tribes and tribal subgroups served during World War II as code talkers.
The Sac and Fox Tribe lived in Illinois and Wisconsin before tribal land was seized by the government and they were forcibly moved west of the Mississippi in the 1830s. Even so, with war on the horizon, Native American men began flocking to the colors to volunteer their services. Early in 1941, on the eve of World War II, a group of young men from the Fox and Sac homeland at Tama, Iowa enlisted in the Iowa National Guard. They were assigned to the 168th Infantry Regiment, a component of the 34th Infantry Division.
Eight of the men were assigned to the communication section of Company H in the 168th’s 2nd Battalion. The Fox and Sac code talkers included Dewey Roberts, Edward Benson, Melvin Twin, and Dewey Youngbear, and two sets of brothers, Frank and Willard Sanache and Judy Wayne Wabaunasee and Mike Wayne Wabaunasee (whose surname ought to ring a bell with Fox Valley residents).
I haven’t been able to track down the origin of the Wabaunasee boys’ surname, but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility they might have some distant relationship to our Chief Waubonsee, even if he was a Potawatomi and they weren’t. “Our” Chief Waubonsee was the primary war chief of the Prairie Potawatomi Band and a confidant of the famed Native American leader Tecumseh and was at the Battle of the Thames in Canada during the War of 1812 where Tecumseh was killed in action. Waubonsee and his friend Shabbona returned to the Fox Valley where they both lived until the region’s Native People were forcibly removed west of the Mississippi in 1836 and 1837.
In our area, a creek, a high school, and a junior college all honor Chief Waubonsee.
After training in Louisiana, the men of the 34th Division were loaded aboard transports and sailed to Northern Ireland where they received more training, before being assigned to the invasion of North Africa.
The 34th Division went ashore at Algiers and then moved on into Tunisia where they collided with Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in some of the U.S. Army’s first heavy land warfare of World War II. In fact, the Fox and Sac boys from Tama became the first code talkers to find themselves in combat.
And it didn’t go well. At the battles of Faid and Kasserine passes in February 1943 the inexperience and sometimes downright incompetence of the U.S. Army’s commanders became all too apparent, as the Germans and Italians chewed up both the 1st Armored Division’s unwieldy Grant tanks and the badly deployed men in the 168th Infantry.
And given their positions as communications scouts, three of the Sac and Fox code talkers were captured, Frank Sanache by the Italians, and Dewey Youngbear and Judy Wayne Wabaunasee by the Germans. All three spent the rest of the war in German prisoner of war camps, only liberated at the end of the conflict. Youngbear, though, escaped several times during his captivity, only to be recaptured.
Although the code talkers served with distinction, and were vital parts of the war effort, their service was considered a military secret until the 1960s and so they never received the recognition they so richly deserved. Not until 2001 were the Navajo code talkers honored by President George H.W. Bush, but even then they received non-military Congressional Gold Medals.
Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, learning that Iowa had also produced code talkers, got the ball rolling to honor all the code talkers. But government being what it is these days, they weren’t all finally recognized for their service until 2013, long after most had died. Youngbear, for instance, died in 1948 of tuberculosis contracted as a result of his captivity.
As Edmond Harjo, 96, an Oklahoma Seminole code talker and one of the few who lived to be honored, noted, the honor was a long time—too long a time—coming.
“If I was young, I would enjoy it,” he mused.