The Little-Known Story of the Navajo Code Talkers: US Cryptography in WWII
Cryptography, the art and science of encrypting sensitive information, is becoming increasingly commonplace in our day to day lives. From iPhones to bank accounts, most of us already interact with cryptography daily, and increasing numbers of people are recognising the value of VPNs when it comes to protecting their privacy. Computers and the internet have allowed the development of a public encryption standard (DES) and the invention of public-key cryptography, two processes which have hauled cryptography, traditionally the preserve of governments and militaries, into the public domain.
A Brief History of Cryptography
The history of cryptography and encryption can be traced much further into the past than most people might think, certainly beyond the dawn of the computer age. Evidence of cryptography has been discovered in Ancient Egypt, and Julius Caesar developed a cipher for his personal communications. Al-Kindi, an Arab polymath, developed cryptography as we recognise it today, however it remained a slow and clumsy method for communication. As recently as the Second World War, US soldiers were forced to make the decision whether to wait for hours to send or receive an encrypted message, or share the information with enemy eavesdroppers in the hope that allied forces would react more quickly. It was, however, during this conflict that a new encryption method was developed, based on the Navajo language, which remains the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered.
The Second World War and the Navajo
In June 1942, the Second World War was not going well for the Allies. Great Britain had survived the Battle of Britain but was yet to score a significant victory against the Axis powers, the US suffered the first invasion of American soil in 128 years following the occupation of Attu and Kiska by the Japanese, and Case Blue, the Wehrmacht plan to capture Stalingrad and the Caucasus, had begun. However, on the other side of the globe in sunny California a promising, top-secret, new weapon was being developed. Based at Camp Elliott, near San Diego, Platoon 382 of the US Marine Corps represented this new weapon. Composed of 29 Navajo young men selected for their skills with both Navajo and English, Platoon 382 were charged with devising an unbreakable code based on the Navajo language and becoming “Code Talkers” in the USMC.
The Navajo language was viewed favourably for several reasons. It bears very little resemblance to English, didn’t have a written form, it has a complex grammar, and, depending on pronunciation, a Navajo word can have four distinct meanings. Platoon 382 developed a code based on their language at Camp Elliott, and then proved its speed and accuracy to various high-ranking officers — all within 13 weeks. The code had two levels, the first being a 26-letter alphabet adapted from the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, and the other being a collection of terms common to a US Marine. As a result, a bomber was encoded under the Navajo word for “Buzzard”, which is jeeshóó.
In November 1942, members of Platoon 382 found themselves wading to shore among floating bodies at Guadalcanal. After finding their units and digging in, the men of Platoon 382 were given a test to prove their worth by their commanding officer. They were put up against the existing method, the Shackle protocol, in which a machine would encode a message into a jumble of numbers of letters, which was then verbally transmitted to a receiver, who would then use a cipher to decode the message. Their commanding officer estimated it would take 4 hours to encrypt, send, and decrypt the message using the Shackle protocol, and challenged the Navajo men to beat it. They did so easily, with the receiver transmitting the decrypted message word for word in two and a half minutes.
Platoon 382 developed its skills during the Guadalcanal campaign, becoming an invaluable unit for directing artillery and mortar fire quickly and accurately, sending warnings to unaware formations, and reporting US troop movements and casualty figures. Such was their importance at Guadalcanal that half of the Platoon was asked to stay after their Division rotated to Australia. They had become a vital and integral part of US Military operations against the Japanese on their first deployment.
Two and a half years later Navajo Code Talkers were still impressing their brothers in arms, this time during the fiercest and bloodiest fighting seen in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, Iwo Jima. Major Howard Connor, a signal officer in the USMC 5th Division, had six Navajo Code Talkers working around the clock for the first two days of the battle, in which time they sent and received over 800 messages — with 100% accuracy. Connor later noted “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
Navajo code talkers continued to be used by the USMC throughout the Korean War and into the early years of Vietnam. The Navajo code remains the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered.
About the author
Sam Bocetta is a retired engineer who worked for over 35 years as an engineer specializing in electronic warfare and advanced computer systems. Past projects include development of EWTR systems, Antifragile EW project and development of Chaff countermeasures. Sam now writes for The Strategy Bridge and Gun News Daily as an independent correspondent, and teaches at Algonquin Community College in Ottawa, Canada as a part time engineering professor.