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The Navajo Code Talkers

Military communications have to be coded to keep them secret from the enemy. However the process of coding and decoding are time consuming processes. Furthermore the codes may be broken by the enemy. Nations have devoted considerable effort trying to create unbreakable codes. In World War II both Germany and Japan thought they had such unbreakable codes, but in fact these codes were broken and their most vital information were readily available to their enemies.

The one unbreakable code turned out to be a natural language whose phonetic and grammatical structure was so different from the languages familiar to the enemy that it was almost impossible to transcribe much less translate. The unbreakable code was coded Navajo spoken by native speakers of Navajo.

The idea of using Amerindian languages for military communications went back to World War I when Company D of the 141st Infantry Division utilized eight Choctaws to convey military orders by telephone. There was also a program to use Cherokee speakers. The Choctaw experiment was considered a success and the U.S. military continued to recruit native Amerindian language speakers for the signal corps.

The idea of using specifically the Navajo language for military communications can be attributed to Philip Johnson. Johnson was the son of Protestant missionaries who spent his childhood among Navajos and learned their language fluently, so fluently that he served even as a child as a translator. From his experience Johnson believed that Navajo was a language that was almost impossible to acquire as an adult.

Some of the reasons that an enemy would not be able to translate messages from Navajo were:

The translation of military messages from English to Navajo and from Navajo to English could done almost instanteously. In contrast the coding and decoding processes were time consuming. In time trials the Navajo system won out easily and decisively against the alternative coding and decoding system. It was a matter of seconds versus a half hour. The Navajo code talk system did use a coding of military terms into Navajo words but these special terms were memorized by the code talkers.

The Implementation
of the Idea

Philip Johnson met with U.S. Marine officers at Camp Elliott in Southern California to convey his ideas. Those officers passed Johnson's proposal on to officials in Washington, D.C. In February 1942 Johnson was invited to submit a formal proposal plan. Johnson proposed training 200 Navajos but the military authorities opted for a pilot trial project of 30 code talkers. In April of 1942 the project was initiated.

Despite the brillance of the concept, its implementation was not without its difficulties. First of all, the recruitment of bilingual Navajos was not that easy. The Navajo reservation was isolated and therefore there was not that much need or benefit for fluency in English among the Navajos. In addition, the recruits had to meet the age, weight and health requrements for the Marines as well as the language requirements. By marginal adjustment the program met its quota of thirty.

The code talkers had to go through the standard Marine bootcamp training. This was a cultural challenge for them but not a physical challenge. In fact, the drill instructors could not find an endurance test that the Navajos could not pass easily. The bootcamp included Marine recruits who were not part of the code taker program. These recruits were in awe of the physical endurance of the Navajos.

Some to the superior performance of the Navajo recruits was a matter of knowledge of the environment. For example, the recruits were sent on a long hike in the desert with backpacks and only one canteen of water. The non-Navajo drank up their entire ration of water and were thirsting for more. The Navajo recruits came back with some water left in their canteens because they knew how to get water from some desert plants such as cacti.

The cultural challenges of the bootcamp for the Navajos were a different matter. For example, in the Navajo culture it is a serious breach of etiquette to step over someone. This was a difficult problem in a crowded barracks among non-Navajos who did not understand the culture. Despite the cultural difficulties the Navajos completed the bootcamp.

The task for the Navajo code talkers was to creat Navajo words for 211 military terms that were likely to be needed in military communication.

From the knowledge of the use of Choctaw-speakers in World War I the German military made an effort before World War II to acquire knowledge of Amerindian languages. The Germans did not acquire any knowledge of Navajo but the Americans knowing of this effort used the Navajo code talkers only in the battles against the Japanese.

The Japanese finally learned of the Navajo code talkers and had at least one captured Navajo speaker. That American soldier claimed that he could not understand the code talk and maintained that silence even under torture. And it might have been the case because he did not know the special code word that had been created for military terms, but it also could have been the superior endurance of torture.

(To be continued.)

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