No study or discussion of codes and cryptography would be complete without an in-depth look at the major contributions made by the Navajo tribe to the fighting during world war 2, as well as the sacrifices made by these brave soldiers and their families.
To this day native Americans, especially the Navajo, are treated like second-class citizens throughout society. For decades, they were stripped of their culture, their language and their identity. They were locked away on reservations, forbidden to speak their language. Their children were forced to attend boarding schools where they were beaten and ridiculed if caught speaking their native tongue. They were made to wear school uniforms, instead of their traditional clothing. They were taught that they were savages, and that the only way they could become "civilized" was to forget all things Navajo, and embrace the so-called American way of life and the English language.
Yet, when the US was in trouble in the war with Japan, the Navajos couldn't wait to join the marines, and offer their very special language as an unbreakable code; the very same language that the (our) government had tried so hard to eradicate.
In the march towards Iwo Jima, and ultimately the bombing campaign for Japan, virtually all of the American codes had been broken by the Japanese cryptography department. Without secure communications, US forces stood almost no chance of defeating the enemy. A search was on for a secure, accurate and quick method of relaying messages on the battle front.
During WW1, other native American languages had been used as codes, and with some success. These other languages had, however been learned by foreign students from Germany, Japan and other countries. No one, however, that hadn't been raised in the Navajo tongue could speak it with any efficiency. Phillip Johnston,(1) who had been raised on the Navajo reservation by his missionary parents, spoke the language. What's more, he knew that probably no one outside of the United States could understand it. When Phillip got word of the communication dilemma facing the armed forces, he recalled hearing of the WW1 codes, and spoke with communications officers at the San Diego Marine base, suggesting using Navajo for a completely secure code.
Although not immediately convinced, the military agreed to view a demonstration from the Navajos to see if it was feasible. In 1942, a pilot unit of 29 young Navajos started the Navajo code talkers.
There were quite a few obstacles. The Navajo language had no words for bomb, or submarine, or dive bomber. Code words were designated for over 400 specific military terms.(2) These all had to be committed to memory. There also had to be a way to spell out words for which no code word had been assigned. And they had to avoid the enemy of all encryption; repetition. These young warriors, used to overcoming many difficult obstacles and, most importantly, to memorizing lenghty stories verbatim (Navajo has no written language) made quick work of devising a code that would work in the heat of battle, and ensure that the vital messages were only understood by their intended recipients.
These soldiers and the code that they developed saved many lives, and hundreds of battles large and small were won due in no small part to the deep patriotism and bravery of the Navajo people, and their willingness to serve the country that, quite frankly, treated them like garbage.(3) Not until over 50 years after the war, and after many of these young men had died, were their contributions recognized by the military. They still have no VA services available close to home. They have struggled with payment, health care, housing and many other things the rest of the country takes for granted.
I, for one, salute them. For your commitment and bravery, and from the bottom of my heart; THANK YOU!
(1) For a short, but thorough history of the Navajo language code, get the booklet "PHILLIP JOHNSTON and the NAVAJO CODE TALKERS" by Syble Lagerquist
(2) A good representation of the code, as well as another view of it's history and development can be found in Simon Singh's "The Code Book"
(3) For a wonderful visual introduction of the code talkers, as well as the chance to see some of the men involved and actually hear the code being spoken, PBS.org has the video "TRUE WHISPERS" available. The cost is about $30.00. I highly recommend this video to any student of the history of military codes, or of Native American culture.
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