Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed legislation designating Interstate 90 between La Crosse and Tomah as the Ho-Chunk World War II Code Talkers Memorial Highway.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed legislation designating Interstate 90 between La Crosse and Tomah as the Ho-Chunk World War II Code Talkers Memorial Highway. (Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs/Facebook)

(Tribune News Service) — A group of Native American soldiers deployed their unique language skills to prevent German and Japanese code breakers from deciphering American military communications during World War II.

They are known as the code talkers, and they have a special place in Sandy Winneshiek’s heart.

“These veterans risked their lives to support the United States, and they weren’t even citizens,” Winneshiek said. “If not for the code talkers, we probably would have lost.”

Winneshiek was instrumental in getting a group of 14 Ho-Chunk code talkers identified and honored, but she had one more task to complete: having a Wisconsin highway named in their honor. Her mission was fulfilled March 25, when Gov. Tony Evers signed legislation designating Interstate 90 between La Crosse and Tomah as the Ho-Chunk World War II Code Talkers Memorial Highway.

“This designation will cement the incredible history of the Ho-Chunk code talkers in our collective narrative and highlight these individuals’ important contributions for folks, families and visitors to learn about,” Evers said.

Code never broken

Native Americans from more than 20 native nations were enlisted to utilize their indigenous languages to communicate sensitive wartime information during world wars I and II. Often working in pairs, code talkers relayed and received messages in dangerous situations, and their messages were never deciphered by Axis forces.

As radiomen, they were targeted by enemy fire. Two Ho-Chunk code talkers died in action.

Code talkers were instructed to keep their work a secret. While the program was declassified in 1968, code talkers did not begin receiving Congressional Gold Medals to recognize their service until 2001. Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 to make them eligible for congressional medals.

Winneshiek, who is related to one of the code talkers, used her experience as an Air Force veteran and federal employee to identify the Ho-Chunk code talkers and have their medals awarded to their descendants, as none of the 14 are still alive. Her quest for a highway in their honor began in 2019. She began with a call to state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, who agreed with the idea and submitted a bill.

“I thought I would like to see a road or highway dedicated to the code talkers,” she said. “Everything was going along smoothly until COVID hit. Everything came to a standstill.”

The bill languished until 2023, when Ho-Chunk leaders began meeting monthly with legislators. Winneshiek gave credit to Smith — along with state Sens. Patrick Testin, R- Stevens Point; Brad Pfaff, D- Onalaska; and state Rep. Nancy VanderMeer, R- Tomah — for returning the bill to the fast track.

“I was very aggressive about this,” Winneshiek said. “Every week I had to know where were at.”

Winneshiek was among the Ho-Chunk leaders who attended the signing ceremony.

“I couldn’t believe it was finally happening,” she said. “It took so long. I’m so happy. It’s a warm and beautiful feeling.”

Growing Hoocak language speakers

Kristin WhiteEagle, a Ho-Chunk Nation legislator, said the recognition has another benefit by keeping the native language alive. The Nation estimates only 40 people still speak Hoocak, but the Nation recently received an $800,000 federal grant to develop a dictionary and computer app.

“The preservation of our Native language is something we are committed to seeing continued, and it is wonderful to celebrate this effort in this way,” WhiteEagle said.

The designation has one more hurdle: signage. Chet Agni, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said the state Department of Transportation is still working with the Federal Highway Administration to meet standards covering the installation of highway signs. He said the process takes about three months.

Ho-Chunk nation president Jon Greendeer said once the signs are erected, they will serve as a perpetual reminder of how the code talkers contributed to the Allied victory.

“This is a significant moment not only for the 14 Ho-Chunk code talkers we are recognizing ... but for future generations to learn more about what these exceptional individuals did to influence the course of history using the language we have worked so hard to preserve,” Greendeer said.

(c)2024 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)

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