Born in a small tent on November 20, 1921 in Oklahoma, Charles Chibitty, a Comanche Indian, grew up in an era when mainstream society strongly disapproved of Native American culture and language. At schools like the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, KS, where Chibitty was educated, students were forbidden to speak their native languages and punished if they did. Ironically, while home for Christmas vacation in 1940, Chibitty learned that the Army Signal Corps wanted to recruit Comanche Indians fluent in their native tongue.
When Chibitty shared the news with his father, his father replied: “Go ahead, it might do you some good.” Chibitty joined the Army on January 2, 1941, and was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division for training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Along with sixteen other Comanche Soldiers, Chibitty spent the next four years providing invaluable service as Army Code Talkers. The language they had been forbidden to speak as children became a code the German Army was unable to break.
Many Indian Schools operated on a military model, so Chibitty and the other Comanches adapted easily to Army life. Much of the training was familiar to them, and Chibitty later recalled: “When we first got to basic training, our drill instructors asked if we had been in the Army, and we said, ‘No, we were in the Indian schools.’”
In April 1941, 2nd Lieutenant Hugh Foster, recently graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point, was given charge of the seventeen Comanche of the 4th Infantry Division. Their mission: create an unbreakable code.
Creating a code is always difficult, but aspects of the Comanche language added to the usual challenges. Many military terms had no equivalent in the Comanche language. For example, Comanche has only one word for “airplane” and no way to distinguish between a fighter, bomber, or other type of aircraft. To overcome this problem, the Code Talkers used other Comanche words as substitutes: “tank” became “wah-kah-ray,” meaning “turtle,” Adolf Hitler became “posah-tai-vo,” or “crazy white man,” and so on.
To communicate names of people and places that lacked specific code words, the Code Talkers learned to spell out the word using random Comanche words. “If the location started with the letter ‘A’, then I would say ‘araka’ the Comanche word for ‘alligator,’” Chibitty said. The specific word did not matter – a Code Talker could use any Comanche word that began with the letter “A” in the English language and complete the word using other Comanche words.
Once the code was finished, the Code Talkers were ready for action. Two Code Talkers were assigned to each of the three regiments in the 4th Infantry Division. Three stayed at headquarters and the rest were assigned to other Army Signal Corps divisions. According to Chibitty his job was to “be a Code Talker, to get to the frontlines and report back to the command post what kind of artillery was coming in on us” and other information. Every transmission the Code Talkers sent, either by radios or telephone, used the Comanche code. Because their messages were in code, even another Comanche would not be able to decipher the message. The Germans did not stand a chance.
On D-Day, Chibitty and 13 other Code Talkers came ashore at Utah Beach as part of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. Years later he still remembered the first message he transmitted that day: “Five miles to the right of the designated area and five miles inland the fighting is fierce and we need help.”
Although communication remained Chibitty’s primary role, his duties also included laying wire for landline communications between the regiments and headquarters. When it came to combat, Chibitty would “hit the ground like a prairie dog.” He said he “wasn’t made to fight, just to lay line and talk Indian, but I had to use my gun… It’s like it’s going to be you or them – and you want it to be them.”
After storming Utah Beach, the 4th Infantry Division was involved in some of the fiercest battles of the war including the breakthrough at St. Lo, the Battle of the Bulge, and Hürtgen Forest.
The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was one of the most brutal battles of the war. Memories of what happened in the Hürtgen Forest haunted Chibitty for years:
“There was a real bad battle there, just like in Normandy. The bodies of American and German soldiers were lying on the ground. It was November, and it started snowing while we were there. It snowed heavy and deep. The next morning we heard a big roar. It was a road grader coming to keep the road open so we could get material up to the guys fighting on the front lines. The grader just went right over those bodies…”
For years after the war the Code Talkers’ work went unnoticed by everyone except members of their own tribe from whom Chibitty received a Cavalry officer’s sabre, an honor comparable to the Medal of Honor among the Comanche. The French government finally recognized the Code Talkers in 1989. The US government followed suit on December 3, 1999, honoring Chibitty during an emotional ceremony in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes. The Military Intelligence Corps Association presented Chibitty with the Knowlton Award for making a significant contribution to Army intelligence, along with an American flag that had been flown over the US Capitol.
In 2002, Chibitty stated, “My language helped win the war, and that makes me proud. Very proud.”
Mr. Charles Chibitty passed away on July 20, 2005.
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