ENID, Okla. —
We are shortly removed from the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings during the spring of 1944 on the beaches of Normandy. And little-known bits and pieces of history still are out there for Americans and the world to continue to discover and take note.
One such nugget that comes from the landing by U.S. troops on Utah Beach that June 6 day, of a man born of humble means, who — along with 13 other Comanche Indian soldiers — would help turn the course of World War II.
Born in the winter of 1921 in a tent at Medicine Park, tucked into Oklahoma’s scenic Wichita Mountains, Charles Chibitty grew up in an American society that had subjugated his people for years, and strongly disapproved of Native American culture and language.
Educated at Haskell Indian School in Kansas, Chibitty and his fellow students were forbidden to speak their natives languages and punished if they did.
So, it was more than a little ironic that a nation that turned its collective noses at Indians would in fact very much need them and use their skills to confuse its enemy.
Home from school on Christmas vacation in 1940, Chibitty learned the Army Signal Corps wanted to recruit Comanche Indians fluent in their native tongue.
He joined up, and was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Ga., spending four years with other fellow Comanche, employing their native dialect to develop an unbreakable code the Germany Army could never decipher.
To develop the code, the Comanche and their officer, 2nd Lt. Hugh Foster, had to find terms for words that had no equivalent in Comanche. The word “tank” became “wah-kah-ray,” meaning turtle. Adolph Hitler was “posah-tai-vo,” or crazy white man.
The Comanche code talkers developed a code so complex — as did the more famous Navajo code talkers in the Pacific Theatre with the Japanese — it was indecipherable except by the most select of Native Americans.
On D-Day, Cpl. Chibitty and 13 other code talkers waded ashore under enemy fire on Utah Beach with the 22nd Infantry Regiment — missing the planned landing area by a number of miles. His first message transmitted that day: “Five miles to the right of the designated area and five miles inland the fighting is fierce and we need help.”
After Normandy, Chibitty and his regiment soon were involved in some of the very fiercest battles on the European Continent, when they took on the Germans at Saint-Lo, the Battle of the Bulge and the Hürtgen Forest.
The Hürtgen Forest fighting haunted Chibitty after he returned from the war.
“There was a real bad battle there, just like in Normandy,” Chibitty remembered in later years. “The bodies of American and German soldiers were laying 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 ....”
Sadly, the American military was little different in its view and treatment of American Indians from the rest of American citizens at that time in our history. The code talkers were virtually ignored in reports and by history. The Comanche Tribe, however, did notice. Chibitty was awarded a cavalry officer’s sabre, an honor comparable to the Medal of Honor among the Comanche.
Actually, it was the French government — in 1989 — that first acknowledged the contribution of the code talkers, not Americans. They presented three surviving Comanche with the Chevalier de L’Order National du Merite.
Finally, in 1999, Chibitty was honored for his contribution to the war during an emotional Washington ceremony in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes.
I’ve always wondered why it was so hard for some Americans to acknowledge the contributions of American Indians to this nation’s history.
Perhaps it is the fact that tribes like the Comanche were fierce warriors, who rode and raided from horseback and constantly battled settlers — particularly in Texas and Oklahoma — to keep their native lands.
Perhaps it is a deep-seated fear that still comes over the descendants of early day settlers and pioneers, who were at the mercy of Comanche warriors during our westward expansion, and the dreaded word Comanche struck fear in their hearts — and it was passed on.
Yet, it was the Comanche and other Indian tribes that adapted to American life, providing the code talkers, who were instrumental in defeating the Nazis and the Japanese.
“My language helped win the war, and that makes me proud. Very proud,” Chibitty said in 2002. He died in Tulsa on July 20, 2005 — a true American hero.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.