LAWTON, Okla. — Personal photographs, military uniforms and a Nazi flag captured during World War II are some of the items on display in a new exhibit that opened Thursday honoring 17 members of the Comanche Nation who used their language as a code during the war.
The opening of the exhibit at the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center in southwestern Oklahoma coincides with the upcoming expected presentation of Congressional Gold Medals to families of the Comanche Code Talkers as well as other tribes' code talkers in Washington, D.C., in November.
"A lot of people didn't realize our Comanches were code talkers. And you know why? They pledged secrecy," Comanche Nation Chairman Wallace Coffey said at a ceremony honoring the men. "Now they're finally getting recognized."
Seventeen young men trained to develop the code: Roderick "Dick" Red Elk, Simmons Parker, Larry Saupitty, Melvin Permansu, Willie Yackeschi, Charles Chibitty, Willington Mihecoby, Morris Sunrise, Perry Noyebad, Ralph Wahnee, Haddon Codynah, Robert Holder, Albert Nahquaddy, Clifford Ototivo, Forrest Kassanavoid, Elgin Red Elk and Anthony Tabbitite.
All have since died.
"I don't know how to express it in words, but I'm glad that he was a part of that," said 78-year-old Videll Yackeschi, whose brother Willie was a code talker. Videll said his brother never talked about his work and it was only later he learned what an important role he and others played.
The 17 underwent training at Fort Benning in Georgia. Fourteen of the men went overseas to participate in World War II and of those, 13 landed at Utah Beach with Allied troops on D-Day, said Phyllis Wahahrockah-Tasi, executive director of the Comanche National Museum and grandniece of two of the code talkers, Charles Chibitty and Larry Saupitty.
Sixteen of the 17 men recruited attended military-style boarding schools before they were recruited for the mission and were trained not to use the Comanche language.
It's ironic, Wahahrockah-Tasi said, that they were recruited to develop a code using a language that they were disciplined for speaking while at school.
The Comanche language was selected because it's unique and distinct, she said.
"Most importantly, it wasn't written down," Wahahrockah-Tasi added.
The Comanche language doesn't have words for some of the words that the soldiers needed to use, so they had to create descriptions, making it almost a code within a code, said Wahahrockah-Tasi. For example, "bomber" became "pregnant airplane" and "machine gun" was "sewing machine gun," said Hugh Foster III, whose father, Hugh Foster Jr. supervised the code talkers.
In the exhibit, personal photographs from family collections of the men taking part in training hang on the walls. The honorable discharge papers for Larry Saupitty and Roderick Red Elk are displayed along with other personal memorabilia. A short video shows what it was like for the men on D-Day. Two of the most distinct items are flags: one is of the Baltic Cross captured by Saupitty. The second is a Nazi German flag with the swastika captured by Chibitty.