World War II code talker's wife to accept medal for his service
Aiken resident Bessie Ruth “Becky” Wahnee never asked her late husband Ralph what he did in World War II, and he never talked to her about it. But since his death in 1987, she has learned that he played an important role, serving as a Comanche code talker.
On Nov. 20, Becky will accept a Congressional Gold Medal on Ralph's behalf during a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall in Washington, D.C. The Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom are the country's highest civilian awards.
“It is the greatest honor that I will ever have in my lifetime,” Becky said. “I'm just overwhelmed by the whole situation. When I married Ralph, who would have ever thought it would go from that to this? It's out of this world.”
During World Wars I and II, the U.S. military used Native American servicemen to relay secret battle messages based on words from their traditional tribal languages. They became known as code talkers.
According to the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center's website, the government handpicked 21 Comanche men to participate in the World War II code talker program. Seventeen went on to enlist in the Army, and they received training as radio operators and line repairmen with the 4th Infantry Division. The Army gave them free reign to develop secret Comanche code words that no one outside the group would be able to understand, including other Comanches.
Fourteen of the Comanche code talkers were sent overseas to fight in the European Theater. Thirteen were with the Allied troops when they landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Several code talkers were wounded in battle, but all survived the war. Their work prevented thousands of their fellow soldiers from dying.
There are no Comanche code talkers alive today, but Becky knew the men who served with her husband well. She and Ralph socialized frequently with them following the war.
“We would all run around together – dance together, fish together and go to powwows together,” Becky said. “They were wonderful guys. I am so proud that they were able to do something for their country – and this was their country – that saved a lot of lives and got the war over within a bigger hurry.”
Becky, 86, is a native of Edgefield. She met her husband at a dance hall in North Augusta when he was based at Camp Gordon, now known as Fort Gordon. Accompanied by an aunt, Becky was only 14. She didn't go out on dates with the friendly full-blooded Comanche soldier afterward, but their paths continued to cross.
“He was very outgoing; he never met a stranger,” Becky said.
She married Ralph in 1945, and they made their home in Oklahoma where Ralph could be close to his family and tribe. After being discharged from the Army, Ralph worked as a mechanic and a long haul truck driver. He and Becky had two children.
Becky remembers hearing her husband utter the words “code talkers” only once.
“One day, Ralph got a letter from France, and, when he opened it, he said, 'The Frenchmen want to honor the code talkers,'” she recalled. “I didn't know what he meant, and he didn't say anything else about it. I thought it was just one of those letters you get telling you that you've won a free trip. I was naive.”
Two years after Ralph died, Becky moved to Aiken for a while. Then she went back to Oklahoma. In 2004, Becky returned to Aiken and stayed.
“When I was back in Oklahoma, I heard people talking about a powwow for code talkers, and I started asking around trying to find out more about them,” she said.
It wasn't until then that Becky understood Ralph's contribution to the war effort. Instead of being upset that he hadn't told her, Becky was proud of her husband's self-control.
“The code talkers took an oath back then not to say anything because the military might have to use what they did again,” she said. “They kept a secret, and I'm fine with it. That shows restraint.”
In September, Becky and her sister, Janie Eubanks-Moore, traveled to the Comanche National Museum in Oklahoma and attended a special program that was held in conjunction with an exhibit there on the Comanche code talkers. Becky received a blanket with her husband's name embroidered on it and other gifts.
On Nov. 18, Becky and her sister will leave for Washington, D.C., and they will return to Aiken four days later.
“I'm so thankful I'm still alive to see all this,” Becky said. “I wish it would have happened when Ralph was alive. He would have really enjoyed it.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.