The forgotten heroes

NEW TOWN Roger White Owl Sr. and Wilson White Owl, both of New Town, remember whenever their dad, Herbert White Owl Sr., and other veterans got together they would talk about using their Hidatsa language while serving in World War II.

Roger, Wilson and other kids would be playing nearby and would hear the veterans talking.

An effort is under way to locate those from the Fort Berthold Reservation who used the languages of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation to help the U.S. military during wartimes. Military papers issued to them normally did not specify that they were code talkers or used their native language in some way while in the service.

Last month, congressional leaders along with Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. and other officials recognized 216 tribal members from 33 different tribes who used their languages to help the U.S. military, and members of their families. They received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

It is believed that no North Dakotans were in the recently group honored.

Many are familiar with the famous Navaho code talkers who during World War II developed a secret code from their language that the enemy could not decipher and played a large role in the Allied success in the Pacific.

It’s not clear if all American Indians whose native language was used to help the U.S. military were code talkers but in some way their languages were used to submit messages back and forth without the enemy knowing.

Herbert White Owl Sr., who is deceased, served in France and Germany with Gen. George Patton, and went behind enemy lines. His Army separation record says he was a light truck driver who served with the 99th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop. He was on frequent patrols into enemy held territory to determine the strength, disposition and location of enemy troops and guns.

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Times newspaper at New Town reported in its Nov. 27 edition that besides Herbert White Owl Sr. and Charles Parshall, others serving under Patton in Europe are believed to have taken part in using their native language to help the military.

“There were also tribal members who served in World War I and provided this service Charlie Grady, Charley Fox and Martin Levings among them. They didn’t seek out recognition for their contribution, but often reminisced among themselves when they got together,” the newspaper said.

Otherwise, Herbert White Owl Sr., of Elbowoods and later New Town, usually would not talk about when he and other tribal members used their native languages while they were in the miliary.

Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., said those who used their native languages were sworn to secrecy by the U.S. military.

The original code talker program was conceived as early as 1918 but the role of the code talkers during World War I and World War II was kept secret until 1968, according to the Department of Defense information.

Mary Louise Defender Wilson’s husband, William Dean Wilson, was one of the 29 original famous Navaho code talkers who were recruited by the U.S. military to develop a secret code from their language. She said her husband was a teenager when he was recruited because he was fluent in both English and Navaho.

She said Native Americans were being discouraged to use their languages but during the war, the U.S. military needed people fluent in them, they helped the military and the military relied on them.

Defender Wilson, who lives on the North Dakota side on the Standing Rock Reservation and teaches at Sitting Bull College at Fort Yates, said the Native Americans who used their languages to help the U.S. military should be recognized. She said those recognitions are long overdue. Her husband and the other original Navaho code talkers were honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush in 2002.

Anyone who has information about members of Three Affiliated Tribes who served in the military overseas, and was or may have used their native language during wartimes should contact the Fort Berthold Veterans Service office at 627-2247. Tom Crowsheart Sr. is veterans service officer. People should provide the name of the service member and military branch, and as much other information as possible such as when and where they served and their ID number.