Charles Chibitty, 23, a Comanche Indian code talker with the 4th Infantry Division at Utah Beach
There had been 17 of us Comanches chosen to go to Europe. I had been at an Indian high school in Lawrence, Ks., when I heard that the Army was recruiting Comanches for the Signal Corps. I told my daddy and he said, “Go ahead, it might do you good.” I joined up in Oklahoma City and got sent down to Fort Benning in Georgia for the training. It was January of 1941.
The U.S. Army had wanted us Comanches along because the Germans would be listening to our communications. Morse code is probably the easiest way to send a message while you’re in battle, but the Germans could break it. Hell, they were smart — they could decode anything. But they couldn’t break Comanche! That’s why they had us.
In the ’40s, no one had really heard Comanche, and nobody had written it down. When I was a kid in the Indian school in Kansas, they would try to forbid us from talking Comanche. If we talked Indian, we got punished. We’d have to get the mop and polish the floors. When we got away from everyone, my cousin and I would talk Indian anyway and if we saw someone coming, we’d hush up. But then it got out that the Army was looking for Indians — and then all of a sudden, the government wanted us to speak it.
My 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. I would speak Comanche over a radio or a telephone to another Indian and he’d translate the message to Army commanders on the other side. Other code talkers at other regiments would report to headquarters what they saw. Back at the base they would put it all together and they’d get an idea what was going on and where they would need to send reinforcements.
In 1944, my division got sent to Europe. We had been stationed in Stokenham, in the southwestern part of England and we knew that we’d get sent to the front at some point — we just didn’t know exactly when. One night, our commanders didn’t allow us out to chase women and drink beer and we knew we were going.
Fourteen Comanches were sent into battle with the 4th Infantry Division, which had three fighting regiments, each had two Indians. I was in the 22nd Regiment, along with Willie Yackeschi. The rest of the Indians in the Army Signal Corps were assigned to other divisions and three stayed back at headquarters so that they could receive our messages and translate them into English.
When we hit Utah Beach, we had some troubles and caught fire. The first message I sent back to base in Comanche was: “We are not in a designated area. We are nearly five miles to the right. The fighting is getting fierce. We need help.” I will never forget that. It was from D-day until the end of the war that Comanche was spoken in Europe — and the Germans never understood a word we said.
We landed on the coast and everyone was shooting at us. One of my good buddies from New Jersey got killed right off. Me and him had drank a lot together and Private Mullins was his name. That bothered me quite a bit.
I didn’t get hit though. You could just hear this whistle when the bullets came and any time I heard it, I would hit the ground like a prairie dog. I wasn’t made to fight, we were just made to lay line and talk Indian, but I had to use my gun. When it’s a war, it’s a different feeling you got. It’s like it’s going to be you or them — and you just want it to be them.
Utah Beach was flat and we went straight on in and we immediately started laying telephone lines, so that we could connect one regiment with another. It was a field telephone, a battery operated plastic unit with a handle on the side. If you wanted to call, you had to wind it up.
We laid about four or five miles of wire, putting the line over the trees to keep it out of the road. This way, the tanks wouldn’t rip it out — which they did anyway. We’d then have to repair it if it broke. We laid the wire through regiment after regiment, connecting each company to the one in front — that way everyone could talk. All of it was connected to division headquarters, which had a big switchboard.
During the war, we had to keep in constant contact with the other Indians so we could figure out what was going on. In Comanche, there were no words for “tanks” and “bombers,” so we had had to come up with words.
When we were in our training in Georgia, all the Comanches sat in a big circle and agreed on what Indian words we would use. A tank became a “turtle” because it has a hard shell. A machine gun was a “sewing machine” because it sounded like my momma’s sewing machine. Bombers were “pregnant airplanes.” Hitler was “posah-tai-vo” — that’s “Crazy White Man.”
The infantry outfit leader would tell me, “We need help.” So I’d make a call and say something like, “A turtle is coming down the hedgerow. Get the stovepipe and shoot him!” That’s, “A tank is coming down the hedgerow, get the bazooka and shoot him!” We had to give very specific instructions or we’d be receiving fire ourselves.
If we had to name our location, then we could spell out a word using other words. If the first letter in our location was ‘A’, then I would say “araka,” which means alligator, and so on.
It all worked pretty good, but it was crazy, talking Comanche one minute and English the next and there are bullets flying and you’re trying to make yourself heard. We did a good job, though. All of the Comanche code talkers came home after the war. None of them died — though two got injured. My cousin, Larry Saupitty, got shot up pretty bad once. But they shipped him to England for treatment. Willie, in my regiment, got hit with shrapnel as well. It looked like someone had dragged a razor blade across his back. I was okay, but I saw a lot of people get killed. When a soldier died, some of the Indians would get together and sing Comanche hymns over the body.
All of those Indians are gone now. I’m the only Comanche code talker— the last one living. I like to remind people what we did so many years ago. I always name the other Indians: my cousin Larry, Willie in the 22nd, and there was Morris Sunrise, Perry Noyobad, Haddon Codynah, Robert Holder, Clifford Ototivo, Forrest Kassanavoid, Roderick Red Elk, Simmons Parker, Melvin Permansu, Wellington Mihecoby and Elgin Red Elk.
The French government gave us the second highest award they can give to someone outside of France. That was in ’89. But our own government didn’t acknowledge what we did for so long. The Pentagon recognized the Comanches in 1999, but by then I was the only one left. Why did it take so long to honor the Comanches for what we did? It beats the heck out of me.
But I know that the Comanche people were proud of what we did and my family was proud, too. When I go talking in schools now about the code talker things I did, I try to let them know that we saved thousands of lives just by using our own language. —Interview by Carolina A. Miranda/New York
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
Charles Chibitty, 83, the last of the Comanche code talkers who used their native tongue to confound Hitler’s forces during World War II, died July 20 of complications of diabetes at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa. He had been living at a Tulsa nursing home.Mr. Chibitty, whose name means “holding on good” in Comanche, also was the last surviving hereditary chief of the tribe, the Comanche Nation reported. He was descended on his mother’s side from Chief Ten Bears, known as one of the signers of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867.
He was one of 17 Comanches from the Lawton, Okla., area who were selected in 1941 for special Army duty to provide the Allies with a language the Germans could not decipher. He served with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, 4th Signal Company.
The Comanche recruits created their code at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1941. “We compiled a 100-word vocabulary of military terms during training,” Mr. Chibitty said in a 1999 interview with the Armed Forces Information Service. “The Navajo did the same thing. The Navajos became code talkers about a year after the Comanches, but there were over a hundred of them, because they had so much territory [in the Pacific Theater] to cover.”
Mr. Chibitty landed at Utah Beach, one of 14 Comanches who hit the beaches of Normandy with Allied troops on D-Day. In presentations over the years, he recalled the first coded 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.”
Because there was no Comanche word for “tank,” the code talkers used their word for “turtle.” “Bomber” became “pregnant airplane.” “Hitler,” Mr. Chibitty recalled, was “posah-tai-vo,” or “crazy white man.”
Two Comanches were assigned to each of the 4th Infantry Division’s three regiments. They sent coded messages from the front line to division headquarters, where other Comanches decoded the messages. Some of the Comanches were wounded, but all survived the war. Their code was never broken.
“It’s strange, but growing up as a child I was forbidden to speak my native language at school,” Mr. Chibitty said in 2002. “Later my country asked me to. My language helped win the war, and that makes me very proud. Very proud.”
Charles Joyce Chibitty was born in a tent near Medicine Park, Okla., a small community in the Wichita Mountains north of Lawton. Attending Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kan., he heard rumors not only of war but also of plans the military had to organize a native-speaking unit. He went home on Christmas break in 1940 and received his mother’s permission to enlist.
The Army wanted 40 native speakers and managed to get 20. Three were sent home because they had dependents. Mr. Chibitty was one of the remaining 17 dispatched to Fort Benning and then to signal school at Fort Gordon, Ga.
As a radio man with the 4th Infantry Division, Mr. Chibitty took part in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, including the breakthrough at St. Lo, Hurtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge and the rescue of the “lost battalion.” The division was the first American unit to participate in the liberation of Paris and the first infantry division to enter Germany.
Mr. Chibitty earned five campaign battle stars. In 1989, the French government honored the Comanche code talkers, including Mr. Chibitty, by presenting them with the Chevalier of the National Order of Merit.
In 1999, he received the Knowlton Award, which recognizes individuals for outstanding intelligence work, during a ceremony at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes.
In addition to his work as a code talker, Mr. Chibitty was a champion boxer in the Army. He had learned to fight at Haskell Indian School.
After his discharge, he lived in Oklahoma, primarily in Tulsa, and worked as a glazier. He also gained fame as a champion fancy war dancer and was invited by many tribes to dance at their powwows.
“He was very good at that,” said Lanny Asepermy, a retired Army sergeant major who serves as head of the Comanche Indian Veterans Association. “It’s very physically demanding, but Charles was like a butterfly floating.”
His wife, Elaine Chibitty, died in 1994. He also was preceded in death by a son and a daughter. Survivors include three grandchildren.
I have been in contact with Charlie’s neice Cheryl Davis in regards to my recent experiences with Charlie and she has been very open and receptive to the conclusion that he is the one who has informed me that he is my guide. I have plans to spend some time with Cyndy Paige (Snakedancer) doing some journey work and Bear medicine towards the end of the month in March to see what additional messages Charlie, the Comanche and White Feather may have for me. I will continue the Blog to record this information.
In the last few days I have come to believe that I will end up writing an article about this, which may also turn into a book depending on how this all plays out.
In the spirit of Charlie and White Feather, I wish you peace.