Joseph Oklahombi By Mike Massey
Unable to speak English, Joseph decided that he should "speak the language of warfare in fighting for his country.”
Little did he know that his native language would become an invaluable tool to help the United States defeat Germany.

Native Americans have played a significant role throughout the history of Oklahoma. From early peoples like the indigenous Spiro Mound builders to the present day five civilized tribes, many tribal members have made contributions in various ways to the state, its people, and the United States. In such areas as ecology and the environment, agriculture and nutrition, games and sporting events, common words spoken by people every day, sign language used for the deaf, and serving America in many wars and conflicts, Native Americans have helped to benefit others. One such man who served his tribe, his state, and his country, even though at the time he was not recognized as a citizen of Oklahoma or the United States, was Joseph Oklahombi. He was a dedicated soldier whose life efforts made significant contributions to the preservation of peoples’ lives and assisted in the pursuit of freedom and victory for the United States during WWI.

Joseph Oklahombi was a full blood Choctaw Indian born May 1, 1895, in Bismark, now known as Wright City, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory. As a young boy, he loved to hunt and fish in the forests near his small home in McCurtain County, which had some of “the best hunting grounds of the state.” Joseph was also a tiller of the land, and raised corn and other crops on his family’s farm. Come harvest time in the fall, he would assist his family and neighbors with gathering in the bounty of what they had sowed. He went to school in a little one room cabin near his home and attended church in a small log mission building not far from the school house. While going to school for a few years, he learned “something of the ways and books of the white man.” Joseph fell in love and married Agnes Watkins, “one of the pretty maidens of his tribe.” Later, the happy couple became the proud parents of a son they named Jonah. Joseph’s main desire as a young brave following in the footsteps of his ancestors, was “to be a great hunter and a great warrior.” It is ironic, considering both his ambition as well as his future exploits in WWI, that in Choctaw, Oklahombi is translated “man-killer” or “people-killer.”

Joseph’s life took an unexpected turn when the United States decided to become involved in WWI. He became aware of “a great war waging between many tribes across the great waters,” and felt it was his duty to fulfill his destiny as a great warrior of his tribe. So at the age of 26, he trekked through many mountainous trails to Idabel and enlisted in the Army. Unable to speak English, Joseph decided that he should “speak the language of warfare in fighting for his country.” Little did he know that his native language would become an invaluable tool to help the United States defeat Germany.

Joseph served in the Thirty-Sixth Infantry Division's Company D, First Battalion, 141st Regiment, Seventy-First Brigade stationed in France during WWI. One day while he was conversing with other Choctaws, Colonel A.W. Bloor realized that he was unable to understand what the Indians were saying. He deducted that since he could not understand their conversations, neither could the Germans. Working with the Choctaw soldiers, Bloor put together a code that substituted the Choctaw language in place of the code used by the military. Joseph and 18 other native born Choctaws became known as the original "Code Talkers."

These dedicated Oklahomans assisted with Colonel Bloor’s idea and translated Allied military messages into Joseph’s native Choctaw language. The messages were then decoded into English and communicated to soldiers in the field. The code talkers were instrumental in helping the allied war effort. As Bloor described it, “the enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages” and thus, “the tide of battle turned within 24 hours, and within 72 hours the Allies were on full attack.”

However, Joseph Oklahombi contributed much more than merely the translation of correspondence. On October 8, 1918, at St. Etienne, France, during the fierce Meuse-Argonne campaign, with the assistance of twenty-three other soldiers, Oklahombi attacked German machine gun nests and captured many of the enemy. According to the official report, Joseph, “under the most violent barrage” pushed through over 200 yards of “barbed wire entanglements, rushed on machine gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners.” Joseph single handedly kept these prisoners at bay “for three long hours until others in the company arrived.” And even though the German fortification contained over “fifty machine guns and trench mortars,” led by the brave “man-killer,” the Choctaw Indian squad seized the weaponry, “turned the captured guns on the enemy,” and held their position for “four days in spite of a continued barrage of large projectiles and gas shells.” Brave Joseph “crossed no man’s land many times to get information and assist wounded comrades.” Based on a statement issued by French Marshal Petain, Oklahombi killed seventy-nine German soldiers, and aided by his fellow Choctaws took care of those that were wounded. Because of his gallant efforts, General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe during World War I, awarded him the Silver Star to be worn on the Victory Ribbon, while Marshal Petain bestowed upon him the Croix de Guerre, one of France's highest honors for bravery. The chivalry that this full blood Native American displayed overseas fulfilled a prophecy made by Pushmataha, a Choctaw chief who passed way in 1827, “that the Choctaw ‘War Cry’ would be heard in many foreign lands.”

After the war, Joseph returned home to McCurtain County, and joined his wife and son in Wright City, on their small farm. As soon as he arrived home he went back to enjoying his favorite pastimes of hunting and fishing. He did not say much about his exploits during WWI. When people would ask him about the war and mention his heroism, he would just nod and say that he did what he had to do. Unfortunately, Joseph also experienced hard times after the war. Still faced with the inability to read or write, he had a difficult time finding a job. He began drinking heavily and “was soon destitute.” Fortunately, Joseph acquired a position with a local coal and lumber company “paying two dollars a day.” But, after spending some time loading lumber he found himself unemployed again, and in 1932, sought a “veteran’s pension (twelve dollars a month) to stay alive.” Three years later, Joseph was offered a movie contract, which would have paid him “$500 a week for several weeks’ employment in making a war picture.” Even though the money would have been a boon for him, when asked about why he refused this lucrative proposal, he stated, “too far from home. No go.” Several years later as the United States once again prepared for war, Joseph was ready to serve. His attitude towards war was simple, he detested it, but at the same time he maintained that “if the peace of the United States is molested, we must be prepared to defend ourselves.” He registered for the draft in 1942, but due to his age, was never chosen to serve in WWII. Joseph continued to live in Oklahoma until April 3, 1960, when he was accidently hit by a pickup truck, driven by a Texarkana, Arkansas man by the name of Kenneth Bazil, while “walking along a country road a half mile east of Wright City.” A sad ending for a man who had helped so many during his short life of 65 years.

Many people have wondered why Joseph Oklahombi did not receive the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. The acts of heroism that he displayed while fighting in France were highly admirable and his life was in jeopardy every day. His exploits were hailed by the press and he was compared to the famous Sergeant Alvin York of Tennessee, who won the Medal of Honor, but had not killed as many Germans, taken as many guns, or captured as many prisoners as Joseph. Some have speculated that if he would have been killed in action, the medal would have been bestowed upon him posthumously. In 2014, a group of students in Mannsville, Oklahoma looked at Joseph’s efforts as part of National History Day. They too wondered about why this brave Choctaw Indian had not been given the Medal of Honor. The students’ teacher, Nellie Garone stated that “they looked at all of his accomplishments and how he served his country heroically and they felt like he deserved more recognition than he got at the time.” Because of the work of these pupils, and with the help of their instructor an application was put together to be submitted to the president requesting that Joseph Oklahombi be awarded the Medal of Honor. Hopefully, the request will be granted, and this humble and courageous Choctaw warrior will be honored for the fearlessness and gallantry that he displayed in the fields of St. Etienne, France, in 1918.

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Joseph Spoke No English
He walked 26 miles to volunteer for the United States Army. He left behind his young wife and baby son.
No Grenades Used A Potato
The unit had no grenades, Joseph carved one out of a potato and went over the top earlier than his company.
Joseph's War Cry Of A Panther
This startled the Germans and Joseph was able to run to the first German machine gun nest and take control of it until the rest of the men in his unit arrived.
Held 171 German Prisoners
The men then turned the enemy’s own guns on them and held 171 Germans prisoner for four days under constant barrage of high explosives and gas shells.