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Bringing War Home: A Code Talker's letters home led to something bigger

Indigenous populations in the U.S. were systematically being stripped of their cultures. Then in WWII, the government discovered the tactical advantages of the Comanche language.

Original air date: March 30, 2023
KATIE WHITE: This is Bringing War Home -- a collaborative project led by Drs. Susan Grayzel and Molly Cannon, at USU's College of Humanities and Social Sciences, connecting listeners with the history of war through sharing war time objects and the personal stories that surround them.

From the moment European colonists set foot on American soil, they were at war with indigenous communities and were determined to destroy their cultures.

In the 20th century that same government came to realize a secret weapon in the everyday language of its indigenous populations. Although Indian boarding schools tried to eradicate these languages, the US government realized -- almost too late -- the tactical advantage these languages could provide.

In the European Theater of World War II, 13 Comanche men served on the front lines as Code Talkers for the US military. These men developed the code themselves building a system of words describing military terms and targets that even other Comanche speakers wouldn't have understood.

They not only sent unbreakable coded messages, but also laid, retrieved and did repairs on the telephone wire that made their work possible — often in the dead of night and under threat of artillery fire.

Ronald Red Elk, younger brother of one code talker, shares a story attached to letters sent home by his brother Roderick, and how the innovative service of the code talkers contributed to the preservation of the Comanche language.

RONALD RED ELK: We were losing the Comanche language primarily because of the — I call it an indoctrination and brainwashing starting in the boarding schools. My parents — they went to a boarding school. They were the first generation children that came off of the plains.

They were on a reservation in southwest Oklahoma, and they loaded them up and took them to what was called Fort Sill Indian school and start teaching them English and then also telling them the Comanche language was no good. “You need to forget about it, you need to forget about your culture.” It was a nationwide Native Americans that were impacted with this type of education.

My mother — primarily — fell to that brainwashing in that she began to believe the language would not help us in the modern world. There was six of us in the family. Marie was 20 years older than me. Dick was 17 years older than me. Well when they came along, Papa and Mama were speaking Comanche to each other. When I came around, they were speaking English. When Roderick left, I was two years old. He was serving in World War Two as a Comanche Code Talker.

The code talkers were so vital in the success of the European theater that in 1989, the French government came over to Oklahoma City and honored these code talkers with their highest French award, I guess you would call it. And there was three Code Talkers left — Dick, my brother, Charles Chibitty, and Forrest Kassanavoid. So they got to experience some of the success of their experiences in Europe.

Roderick, and another code talker was part of this group of speakers that wanted to make sure that we would carry on with the language. I always wanted to speak Comanche. I was envious of people that could speak and then I became an advocate of the language in 1992. We formed this group of speakers and non-speakers to save the language and develop programs to bring it forward.

Since 1994, the Comanches do have a spelling system. Before then the language was not written. It's taken a long time, but I feel confident that it will carry on because we have it within the nation's government. It's fully funded, and we have many younger people that’s really interested.

Without our language, our culture will perish and there are many good things in our culture that we need to carry forward.

WHITE: Support for Bringing War Home comes from Utah State University, the National Endowment for the Humanities Dialogues on the Experience of War and Utah Humanities. Production by Katie White. More resources available at

Katie White has been fascinated by a multitude of subjects all her life. At 13-years-old Katie realized she couldn't grow up to be everything — a doctor-architect-anthropologist-dancer-teacher-etc. — but she could tell stories about everything. Passionate about ethical and informed reporting, Katie is studying both journalism and sociology at Utah State University.