Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Unbreakable Code: The Testing Begins

Sorry about the gap between posts. I've been at Killer Nashville since last Wednesday. More about that when I finish up with the Code Talkers.

On February 27, 1942, Johnston arrived at Camp Elliott with four Navajos. He considered fluency in this difficult language impossible for anyone who did not grow up speaking it. His plan,therefore, was to recruit not only those men whose first language was Navajo, but who also possessed a fluency in English as well. On the day of the test, Colonel Jones, who had installed a field telephone in the headquarters building and invited General Vogel and his staff to attend, handed the Navajos six messages similar to those used in military operations and gave them an hour to practice. The men used this time to choose Navajo words to substitute for military terms such as dive-bombing and anti-tank gun.

The testing began. A member of the general's staff would write a message and hand it to one of the Navajos, who translated it into his language and relayed it over the field telephone to a Navajo in another room. This man, in turn, would translate it back into English and prepare a written message. Fifteen minutes later General Vogel inspected the translated messages, and the accuracy convinced him that the Navajo language could be used for code purposes. On March 6 he sent the results of the demonstration and Johnston's proposal to the Marine Commandant in Washington, D.C. "The demonstration was interesting and successful," he wrote in the accompanying letter. "Messages were transmitted and received almost verbatim." He also requested the recruitment of 200 Navajos.

Next: Permission Granted

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The Idea

High-ranking military men in Washington were reluctant to approve the further use of Indian languages for combat communication, being concerned that accuracy might be hampered by static and combat noise. Furthermore, Indian vocabularies did not have military and technical terms. They believed that an unbreakable code was impossible, convinced that creating new codes based on the English language was the best way to go.

The US might have missed an important strategic advantage if not for a World War I veteran named Philip Johnston who convinced some high-ranking marines in San Diego that the use of one certain Indian language could create an unbreakable code. Johnston, the son of missionaries, had grown up on the Navajo reservation with only Navajo children for playmates, and quickly learned the difficult language.

After reading about military maneuvers in Louisiana where Indians from tribes in Wisconsin and Michigan were being used as "code transmitters he came up with a unique idea. In San Diego he contacted the area signal officer, Lt. Col. James E. Jones and asked him how he would like a device that would assure complete secrecy in battlefield messages. The colonel assured Johnston that no code or cipher had ever been completely secure in the history of warfare.

Johnston persisted. Suppose an Indian language was used as the basis for the code, always used orally, by radio or telephone, and never written down. The colonel explained that the idea had been tried and proved to be impractical,but Johnston persevered. His idea, he said, was not to merely transmit messages in an Indian language but to build a code based on Indian words.

He finally had the colonel's full attention after speaking a sentence in Navajo and asking him if he honestly believed that anyone but a Navajo could understand what he had said. He pressed his advantage and invited the colonel to repeat a Navajo word he uttered syllable by syllable. The absolute inability of Jones to comply convinced him of the possibilities of the complex language. He asked Johnston to arrange a meeting. 

Next: The Testing Begins

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Choctaw Precursors

The idea of using Native Americans to relay coded messages during wartime actually started in 1918 in the Argonne forest of northern France. Defeat seemed imminent for the Allies at the hands of the powerful German army. American commanders had been directed to capture a German stronghold at Forest Ferme. A surprise attack offered the only hope for success, but the Germans had managed to intercept and decode every Allied message.

The solution to the problem was discovered quite by accident. An American captain overheard two Choctaw soldiers speaking in their native tongue, and an idea surfaced.The captain inquired as to the number of Choctaws in the battalion. Eight men who spoke fluent Choctaw were discovered. To test his idea the captain had one Choctaw translate a message into his language and relay it to company headquarters using the field telephone. Another Choctaw at headquarters listened to the message and accurately translated it back to English for the battalion commander.

The experiment was successful, and at least one Choctaw was assigned to each field company headquarters to begin at once to handle communications by field telephone. The Allies achieved victory at Forest Ferme, and the Choctaw code talkers played a major role. The Germans failed to decipher one word. The U.S. government cautioned the Native Americans to keep their role in the war a secret in case American forces in future conflicts had need of them.

German officials identified the language and began making their own plans for "future wars." After the war, during the 1920s and 1930s Germans, saying they were tourists and scholars, visited Native reservations ostensibly to study Native American culture. In fact, they had been sent by their government to learn Native languages. By the time the United States had entered World War II in 1941 most American Indian tribes had been visited and had their languages studied thoroughly. But not the Navajo.

Next: An idea is born.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The Navajo Language

The Navajo language is extremely complex and the pronunciation difficult. A few traders and missionaries had even tried to learn it prior to 1942, but they only learned enough to conduct their business. They never attempted to use Navajo in daily conversations. Indeed, there were only about 28 non-Navajos who understood the language extensively.

An attempt had been made to write the language, but it remained essentially oral. It remained pure since the Navajos did not adopt foreign words as other languages often do. For instance, when the radio and telephone made an appearance on the reservation, they created new Navajo words for them. "Radio" became nil-chi-hal-ne-ih and "telephone" was besh-hal-ne-ih. The words are not pronounced as written since each syllable requires sounds that would need accent marks and phonetic symbols. Even with knowledge of phonetic symbols the unpracticed tongue would find it difficult.

Anthropologist Clyde Kluckholn wrote that the talk of those who learned Navajo as adults always had a flabby quality to the Navajo ear.

Next: The Choctaw Precursors