David Kahn 每 Author Of Books (The Reader of Gentlemen*s Mail) About Codes, Codebreakers, Cryptography History, Political And Military Intelligence
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The Navajo ※Windtalkers§

 by David Kahn

            It is the most romantic story in American cryptology.  Navajos spoke over the radio in their native tongue during World War II to keep enemy Japanese from getting American secrets.  The noble savage had joined with modern technology to help win the war.

            A new film justly celebrates these Marine Corps code talkers. ※Windtalkers§  shows them working, as they did, in pairs 每 one speaking, one listening -- in plenty of battle scenes.  Once Ben Yahzee, played by Adam Beach, gives the location of an enemy battery in Navajo to a colleague on a battleship, whosebig  guns then destroy it.  The movie generates its tension from the premise that each codetalker had a bodyguard who was to kill him if he were in danger of being captured and compromising the code. 

            In fact, no such orders were ever issued 每 marines don*t kill other marines.  And it is questionable whether bodyguards as such were assigned to the code talkers, though guards may well have been posted to protect command posts. The film also claims that the Navajo code ※was ultimately the only one never broken.§  Actually, most American cryptograms were not solved by the Japanese, who read at best a couple of antiquated diplomatic codes and some low-level military cryptosystems. But this is Hollywood.

            The basis of the movie is, however, factual.  About 420 codetalkers served in the Marines in the Pacific.  The idea of using Navajos to conceal the content of marine messages came from Philip Johnston, a missionary*s son who grew up on their reservation speaking the language.  It was not an original concept.  People have long spoken in foreign languages when they didn*t want eavesdroppers to understand them.  In World War I, eight Choctaws manned trench telephones for the Army*s 36th Division. According to an article in ※Cryptologia§ by Stephen Huffman, trials were made during World War II with Comanches, Chippewas, Oneidas, Sac-Foxes, and Muskogees. 

            But Johnston saw that the 50,000-person Navajo tribe offered a sufficiently large pool of English- and Navajo-speaking young men.  And he knew that no Germans, Japanese, or Italians had studied the language, whose complexities defend against both interception and interpretation.

            It includes sounds not in German or Italian or Japanese 每 or English.  For example,the word doo pronounced with a low tone means ※not§;  with a high tone, it means ※and.§  While English and Navajo distinguish between unvoiced and voiced consonants (f is unvoiced, v is voiced), Navajo also has ejective consonants, expressed with a burst of breath. An enemy wanting to solve messages in it would have first to transcribe those unfamiliar sounds.  But would he know what to listen for?  And how would he notate them?

            Moreover, Navajo verbs have different modes, among them iterative, optative and imperfective, and different aspects, such as continuative, reversative, semelfactive and conative. A speaker must use one form if he himself was aware of the start of rain, another if he believes rain was falling for some time in his locality before he noticed it, and so on. The Navajo verb, one anthropologist has said, is ※like a tiny imagist poem.§ Thus n芍*ildil means ※You are accustomed to eat plural separable objects one at a time.§ This linguistic and phonetic complexity makes the language not only difficult for non-Navajos to understand, but almost impossible to counterfeit.

            Johnston persuaded the Marines to let him demonstrate his idea.  On Feb. 28, 1942, four Navajos living in the Los Angeles area were given five messages to send in Navajo.  Though the messages as recorded were not exactly what was sent, Major General Clayton B. Vogel, commander of the Amphibious Force of the Pacific Fleet, realizing that the volunteers were untrained, considered the demonstration a success. He recommended to the commandant of the Marine Corps that Navajos be recruited and trained for secret spoken communications.

            By the beginning of May, the first 29 had been inducted and, after basic training, sent to Camp Elliott, Calif., to prepare as code talkers.  They found that  their language did not have words for ※bomber,§ ※tank,§ ※colonel§ and other military terms.  And sometimes words had to be spelled out in English so that the English-speaking commanders could transmit and receive orders unambiguously. To overcome these difficulties, the Navajos devised a code.  This had to be memorized, as no paper copies were to be carried into the combat zones where the code talkers worked.

            For military items, they chose words that recalled the items.  Thus, tank was chay-da-gahi, or ※tortoise.§ Observation plane was ne-ahs-jah, ※owl.§  Brigadier general was so-a-la-ih, ※one star.§  Soldiers were lei-cha-ih-yil-knee-hi, ※dog faces.§

Some terms had to be arbitrary: din-neh-ih, ※clan,§ for division, has-clish-nih, ※mud,§ for platoon.

            The codetalkers spelled English words by using the Navajo word whose English translation had the initial letter needed. For a, for example, the codetalkers said wol-la-chee, ※            ant,§ or be-la-sana, ※apple,§ or tse-nill, ※axe.§  If a Navajo term would serve, they used that:  tse-ye-chee for  ※cliff.§  They used Navajo numbers. By the end of the war, the code dictionary ran eight typed pages.

            A chief advantage of the code talker system lay in its speed.  Encrypting a written message, radioing it in Morse dots and dashes, transcribing the incoming text, and decrypting it often took an hour or more.  The Navajos handled a message in minutes.

            Electrical scramblers that turned talk into incomprehensible, Donald Duck-like sounds for transmission existed during World War II. But they were bulky and delicate, not suitable for front-line work and not as secure as the Navajo system:  the Germans cracked the A-3 transatlantic scrambler and eavesdropped on some Roosevelt-Churchill conversations.  The electronic sigsaly system, which was absolutely secure, took up as much space as a freight car. Today, cellular telephones encrypt using tiny chips.

            But during the Pacific war, with such technology not available, the Navajo codetalkers provided secure, authenticated oral communications. They were first deployed on Sept. 18, 1942, on Guadalcanal. In that island-hopping war, they served as well on Bougainville, New Britain, Saipain, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.  During the first 48 hours of the Iwo Jima landing, the signal officer of the 5th Marine Division operated six Navajo radio nets, whose code talkers sent more than 800 messages without error. It was a code talker message that reported that the Marines had reached the summit of Mt. Suribachi, where the famous flag-raising took place. The Japanese never interpreted a single message.

            Code talkers  saved American lives. President Bush thanked them at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on July 26, 2001, at which they were awarded Congressional Gold Medals. The National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade, Md., has a code talkers exhibit, as will the soon-to-be-opened International Spy Museum in downtown Washington.  ※Windtalkers§ properly honors them. Its conclusion about the code is right:  ※Like the American spirit, it was never broken.§

Copyright © 2008 David Kahn. All rights reserved.