Meskwaki ‘code talkers' receive Congressional Gold Medal

Eight Meskwakis trained as code talkers and assigned to missions in during WWII

Don Wanatee
Don Wanatee

Nearly 70 years after eight Meskwaki men were trained to use their native language to provide secure battlefield communication, members of the Tama-based community accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of their ancestors who served as World War II “code talkers.”

“At last,” said Donald Wanatee, a member of the Meskwaki tribal council, who accepted the medal at a ceremony at the Capitol where 33 American Indian tribes from 11 states were recognized.

The medal came as a result of the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 that directed medals be struck to honor the valor and dedication of Native American code talkers during World War I and World War II. However, the Meskwakis and Iowa’s congressional delegation had been working on the recognition since 2001 when other tribes received the Congressional Gold Medal.

The award, first presented to George Washington, will immortalize the Native Americans, according to House Speaker John Boehner, who in remarks at the ceremony called them heroes “who for too long went unrecognized.”

It was an honor to see the Meskwaki veterans recognized for their “historic role in World War II, using their native language as the basis for creating unbreakable codes for communicating messages in combat,” Sen. Tom Harkin said. In their efforts, they “exemplified the traditional Meskwaki values of bravery, honor and justice.”

For the 1,400-member Meskwaki community the medal is an honor to the code talkers as well as tribal leaders, spouses, children and friends “who fought to preserve the Code Talkers’ legacy and make this day a reality,” according to Judith Bender, chairwoman of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, otherwise known as Meskwakis.

“As we continue our efforts to preserve our Meskwaki language, today reminds us of its importance to generations past and those yet to come,” Bender said.

The eight Meskwakis -- Edward Benson, Dewey Roberts, Frank Sanache, Willard Sanache, Melvin Twin, Judy Wayne Wabaunasee, Mike Wayne Wabaunasee and Dewey Youngbear -- were trained as code talkers and assigned to missions in Algeria, Tunisia and Italy.

The strategy was that the Meskwakis, as well as those from many other Indian tribes around the country, would keep the enemy from intercepting codes by using their native language, which was indecipherable to outsiders. Navajos in the Pacific Theater have been given credit by historians for the Allied victory over Japan and were portrayed in a movie titled “Windtalkers.”

However, the Meskwaki men, all deceased, never received that recognition because the code was classified until 1968. They never had the opportunity to use their language skills because of their limited numbers and the short range of walkie-talkies.

The last of them, Frank Sanache, died in 2004 at the age of 86.

Sen. Chuck Grassley was struck by the fact that more than 60 years after World War II the code talkers are getting the recognition they deserve and the public is coming to “a knowledge of things not in the history books.”

“They may be in the Meskwaki history books, but they aren’t in in military history books as much as they should be or we wouldn’t have a 60-year delay in their recognition and, in the case of World War I, almost a century,” Grassley said.For 1st District Rep. Bruce Braley, who grew up about 20 miles from the Meskwakis’ Tama community, the ceremony “one of most amazing and inspirations awards ceremonies I’ve attended as a member of Congress.”