In an emotional ceremony punctuated by throbbing drums and tribal chants, the Department of Defense yesterday honored the last surviving member of an elite group of Comanche Indian "code talkers" who used their native language to help cloak Allied communications during World War II.
Charles Chibitty, an Oklahoman who served in the Army's 4th Signal Corps, received several awards during the ceremony at the Pentagon's "Hall of Heroes," including the Knowlton Award for significant contributions to military intelligence efforts.
Members of several tribes served as code talkers during World War II--including many Navajos who served as Marines in the Pacific--and some are still alive. But Chibitty, 78, is the last of the 17 Comanches who served in the European theater.
In an eloquent and bittersweet address, Chibitty (pronounced CHI-bitty) spoke repeatedly of his fellow Comanches who died before being honored for their service by the United States.
"When I talk about my Comanche comrades," Chibitty said haltingly, "I always wonder why it took so long. . . . They are not here to enjoy what I am getting after all these years. Yes, it's been a long, long time."
Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Kevin Gover also presented a BIA award for service to Chibitty, noting that for years the bureau tried to force Comanches and other tribes to stop speaking their native languages. It's a "great irony," Gover said, that "only two or three generations after having been in conflict with the United States, our warriors would go forward and play such a crucial role in the victory over this country's enemies."
Chibitty, who is a champion Native American dancer and former boxer, spoke sadly at times but also relayed humorous anecdotes about his journey from Oklahoma to the battlefields of World War II. He said he had to beg his mother to let him leave high school during senior year in 1940 to join a group of Comanches being recruited for Army service because of the uniqueness of their language at a time when modern-day encryption techniques were still decades away.
One Comanche, Roderick Red Elk, was found to be four pounds underweight for the Army, so Chibitty and other Comanches took him back to their hotel and stuffed him full of bananas and water. They managed to add just two pounds to Red Elk's weight but, Chibitty recounted, the Army officer doing the examinations let it slide. "I guess he just put his big toe up on the scale and said, 'Yup, he just barely made it.' "
Once they landed in France, the Comanches had to invent certain words. They had nothing in their dialects, for example, for "bomber." For Adolf Hitler, they used the Comanche words for "crazy white man."
After the ceremony, Hankie Poafpybitty, one of many Comanches at the event dressed in dazzling traditional attire, said she was pleased for the "great honor" bestowed on Chibitty but also wished it had come sooner.
"It was a long time coming," she said. "I'm glad that they are finally recognizing him and the other Comanche code talkers and the service that native people have provided to the country. They fought for our country too, and a lot of people don't know that."
CAPTION: Charles Chibitty accepts standing ovation at Pentagon ceremony. Flanking him are Arthur L. Money, assistant defense secretary, and Gail Riddle of the Comanche Nation. At left, bearing pole, is Max Little of the Seminole Nation.
CAPTION: Charles Chibitty laughs as he relates wartime memories of his fellow Comanches and World War II code-talking soldiers.