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When Navajos Fought Japanese for Ne-He-Mah

By DAVID KAHN Copyright 2002
The New York Times Company June 15, 2002

Navajo Code Talkers

It is the most romantic story in American cryptology. To keep the Japanese from getting American secrets in World War II, Navajos - among the original Americans - spoke over the radio in their native tongue. In World War I, eight Choctaws manned trench telephones for the Army's 36th Division. According to Cryptologia by Stephen Huffman, trials were made during World War II with Comanches, Ojibwas, Oneidas, Sac-Foxes and Muskogees. 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.
The Navajo codetalkers provided secure, authenticated oral communications during battle. Indeed, the usefulness of their information often expired within hours. They were first deployed on Sept. 18, 1942, on Guadalcanal. In that island-hopping war they served as well on Bougainville, New Britain, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
During the first 48 hours of the Iwo Jima landing, the signal officer of the Fifth Marine Division operated six Navajo radio nets, whose codetalkers sent more than 800 messages without error. It was a codetalker message that reported that the Marines had reached the summit of Mount Suribachi, where the famous flag-raising took place. The Japanese never interpreted a single message.
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.

He knew:

He showed the Marines his idea on Feb. 28, 1942, four Navajos living in the Los Angeles area were given five messages to send in Navajo. Although there were inaccuracies when a Navajo misheard the message, Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel, commander of the Amphibious Force of the Pacific Fleet, realized the potential of theNavajos. He recommended to the commandant of the Marine Corps that they be recruited and trained for secret spoken communications.
A chief advantage of the code talker system was its speed. Encrypting a written message, radioing it in Morse code, transcribing the incoming text and decrypting it often took an hour or more. The Navajos handled a message in minutes.

About the Language: Learn about Tonal Languages

NAVAJO HEROS

By the beginning of May, the first 29 had been inducted, and they received basic training and were sent to Camp Elliott, Calif., to prepare as codetalkers. 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 codetalkers worked.

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