LEGACY OF HEROISM
Chibitty Collection to educate about WWII Code Talkers
Story and photos by Scott Rains
ATexas man has made it his mission to share the story of the Comanche Code Talkers of World War II after developing a special bond with the group’s last veteran. When Joe Martinez of Tyler made a promise to Charles Chibitty before the elder veteran’s death in 2005, he took it seriously. On Thursday, his mission brought him and his brother, John, to the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, where he loaned some of Chibitty’s memorabilia from the war for inclusion in its upcoming grand finale of “All Things Comanche — A Numunuu Trilogy” exhibition. *** The exhibit will open with a reception at 1:06 p.m. Feb. 28 at McMahon Memorial Auditorium. Martinez brought the Chibitty collection for the museum staff to peruse and decide what will be included in the exhibit. The collection consists of WW II relics Chibitty brought back from Europe, as well as rare video footage of Chibitty that was shot by the Martinez family. Each item is accompanied by a story first shared by “Grandpa Charles,” as Martinez still calls him. The two developed a close friendship prior to Chibitty’s death in 2005. After seeing the war hero featured on a news show in 1994, Martinez sought out Chibitty as a historical mentor. He said he’s the last living person who knows all the words used in the code. Chibitty gave the items to Martinez and asked him to use them to keep the Comanche Code Talkers’ legacy alive. “I promised him I’d continue telling the story for these guys,” Martinez said. “It’s about all the Code Talkers.”
“People shouldn’t forget what these men did,” he said. Sharing the story of these heralded heroes is among the museum’s many imperatives, said Phyllis Wahahrockah-Tasi, museum executive director. A relative of Chibitty, she said that her elder and Larry Saupitty were the only two of the Code Talkers who retained much memorabilia from the campaign. She told of a daughter who didn’t know of her father’s service as a Code Talker until after his death. “Those two, they’re the record keepers,” Wahahrockah-Tasi said. “It’s a great honor for me to put these items on display.” Who were the Code Talkers? The Comanche Code Talkers were all born in Caddo, Cotton and Comanche counties and used their native language to keep Germans from understanding radio transmissions in the European Theater during World War II. The Code Talkers were assigned to the 4th Signal Company of the 4th Infantry Division. From December 1940 until July 1945 the division was active in the war effort. Twelve code talkers landed on Utah Beach, one landed on Omaha Beach and one remained aboard ship to receive and send sensitive military messages in the Comanche language. From July 7, 1944, through July 11, 1945, they fought in five European campaigns. The group included Chibitty, Haddon “Red” Codynah, Robert Holder, Forrest Kassanavoid, Wellington “Mike” Mihecoby, Perry “Taxi” Noyobad, Clifford Ototivo Sr., Simmons Parker, Melvin Permansu, Elgin Red Elk Sr., Roderick Red Elk, Larry Saupitty, Morris (Sunrise) Tabbyyetchy and Willis Wood Yackeschi. All the Code Talkers are deceased. Chibitty was inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame in 2001. Kassanavoid served as historian for the Comanche Nation for many years. Noyobad was wounded in action and awarded the Bronze Star. Saupitty was twice-wounded in combat; he was radioman for the 4th Infantry Division under Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., assistant division commander, and had the distinction of sending the first coded message after landing at Utah Beach. “They were an instrumental part of the Allies’ success: while it took a machine up to four hours to transmit and decode a message, the Code Talkers could do it in less than three minutes,” said Candy Morgan, education director at the museum. “Their codes were never broken. The Comanches were one of more than a dozen tribes who took part in the top-secret program.” Code Talkers used their Native languages in service to the military in World War I and World War II. The Comanche language was used toward the end of World War I and the effectiveness was not lost on Hitler, Martinez said. He told of Germans who had been sent to Southwest Oklahoma and tasked with getting a handle on the Native languages before the war’s outbreak. Elders didn’t trust the Europeans who were asking about their language and turned them in for deportation, he said. Witness to horrors Martinez said that Chibitty was forever affected by the atrocities he’d seen during the liberation of the concentration camps. Martinez still carries a yellow, Star of David given to Chibitty by a Holocaust survivor as a reminder. “By the end of the war,” Martinez said, “he was so appalled by the Holocaust and what he’d learned had gone on inside those concentration camps.” A Nazi flag taken from outside of Bayreuth, Germany lay draped over a table. Atop it was a bayonet that was won in a battle for survival inside a foxhole at the Battle of the Bulge. The enemy soldier had jumped into the hole and Chibitty fought back, eventually killing the man with that same bayonet. Every reminder serves a purpose. A black SS helmet on loan was retrieved during the campaign. Martinez told Chibitty’s story of having been part of a group pursuing some fleeing SS officers who were caught hiding in a cottage cellar. Despite their spot-on New Yorker accents something wasn’t right and the suspected enemies were forced to strip off their shirts. Tattoos of the letters “SS” under the right armpit gave the eight men away and they were lined up and shot on the spot, he said. Perspective of compassion Chibitty told his pupil about seeing the horrors of warfare, the sound of a “crunch” as a fallen Nazi soldier continued being run over by his own tanks. In another fight, Chibitty told of having a fleeing Nazi soldier in his gunsight and not pulling the trigger. Hatred had turned to compassion. “He said, ‘Enough blood had already been shed that day,’” Martinez said. “War’s not about killing, it’s about showing compassion for the enemy.” A former Nazi machine gunner met with Chibitty during an appearance in the elder years, Martinez said. The German man gave his Comanche counterpart his Iron Cross — the highest military honor given by the German Axis — as a form of an apology. “Charles told him, ‘We were just kids, if I would’ve seen you, I’d’ve killed you too. After all these years we can be friends,’” Martinez said. This Code Talker’s legacy is being faithfully carried on by Martinez. At schools, museums and veterans groups, he said he is happy to bring items and share these tales — for the sake of “Grandpa Charles” and the other Comanche Code Talkers. “He always said, ‘We need to remember out past, otherwise we’re doomed to repeat it,’” Martinez said.