Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Testing the Code

The Code Talker could switch from using the code words to spelling the word from the alphabet, which had at least three terms for the most frequently used letters of the English alphabet. To do this the Talker would use A, B, C to let his counterpart know he was going to spell the word out instead of using the word itself. Example: the word "abandon" is ye-tsan (run away from), but spelled out it would be Apple (be-la-sana) Badger (na-hash-chid) Ant (wol-la-chee) Nose (a-chin) Deer (be) Owl (ne-ahs-jah) Needle (tsah). Note the use of two different words for A and N so as not to establish a pattern for the Japanese code-breakers to study. One of the Anglo marines who worked with the Code Talkers said the Navajo code was American double-talk mixed with a sound like water from a jug being poured into a bathtub.

After the alphabet and code words were complete, the memory work began. This was the easiest part of the requirements since in Navajo everything is in memory. The songs and prayers and everything else was in the oral tradition.

They tested and retested their coding and decoding skills in the classroom, sending such messages as "Landing wave on beach but loss is high." They started out with messages of a few words and rapidly worked their way up to longer ones. During field trials they were amazed at how well it worked. The messages came out word for word on the other end, including semi-colons, commas, periods, and question marks. When the field trials had ended the received message matched the sent message to the letter.

The code proved to be fast and accurate, but unbreakable? United States Intelligence put it to the test. During the field trials the code was transmitted over radio and picked up by them. They worked on it for three weeks, but could discern no repetition or sequences or pattern. U.S. Intelligence could not break it.

While at Camp Elliot the Navajos received training for general Signal Corps: Morse code, panel codes, signal flags, field telephones and radio (operation and mechanics). They also received combat training. The pilot program was an unqualified success, leading to a recommendation that another 200 Navajos with the proper qualifications be recruited to continue the program. These twenty-nine members of the first class, however, were assigned to various units of the 1st Marine Amphibious Corps and 2nd Marine Division Communications Personnel and shipped out to the Pacific Theater as soon as possible.

Next: The Battle for the Pacific

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Developing the Code

By the end of the first day they had devised the alphabet. They repeated it until it was committed to memory, and fell asleep repeating it to themselves. They had to come up with words in English that had Navajo counterparts. Most letters had two or three words, such as ant, apple, and axe for A, badger, bear, and barrel for B, and so on. Only V, W, X, and Z had one word only. The word for W is weasel and the Navajo word for weasel is gloe-ih.

After the alphabet they created 211 Navajo words to substitute for military terms that were nonexistent in Navajo.
Commanding General=War Chief
Major General=2 Star

Organizations were more difficult, so they substituted Navajo clan names for many of them.
Battalion=Red Soil

Substitute words for aircraft were much easier. Birds seen on the reservation prvovided easy to remember substitutes.
Dive Bomber=chicken hawk
Fighter Plane=humming bird

Navajo names of fish and water mammals were chosen for ships.
Mine sweeper=beaver

Terms frequently used in battle needed Navajo synonyms.
Confidential=kept secret

Some substitutes were chosen for shape or resemblance.

Countries took on names with special meanings to the Navajos.
America=Our Mother (loved this one)
Japan=Slant Eye

Because the Navajo did not measure time as the Americans and Europeans did, their language had no terms for months of the year. They chose words that described the season or the events that took place at that time of year.
March=Squeaky Voice
April=Small Plant
May=Big Plant

The Navajo words cannot be pronounced as they are written. The English alphabet alone cannot produce the pronunciation or the true meaning. Many accent and phonetic marks are needed to represent the tone and pitch of each syllable and the gutteral sounds so unfamiliar to the non-Navajo. Even a Navajo would need to know which dialect was being used. 

Next: How the Code Was Used

Friday, September 7, 2012

Permission Granted

The matter was turned over to A.H. Turnage, director of the Division of Plans and Policies. There were several issues that he had concerns about: the possibility of mistakes during translations, possible problems in teaching the Indians to use technical equipment, and the fear that using Indian dialect under combat conditions might slow communications. He was advised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the Navajo language would indeed be an ideal medium of communication since the messages would be unintelligible to anyone other than the Navajos themselves. They would also be exceptionally fast since the individuals could translate as they received, thus doing away with coding or transcoding. After studying the reports he granted permission for the Navajo project, although the pilot program was authorized for thirty Navajos of the 200 requested.

Although many applied during the recruitment only 29 Navajo men made it into the pilot program. Fluency in both Navajo and English was the main requirement, but the men also had the rigors of boot camp facing them.It was not much of a problem for them,however, after overcoming a few cultural differences. The commanding officer reported to the Commandant that they had done exceptionally well at the Depot, having at an early date developed a very high esprit de corps. The group of 29 men, he said, was still intact. None had dropped back due to sickness,disciplinary action or lack of ability to keep up with the others, which was highly unusual, the rate of attrition being from five to ten percent. He reported that their progress had been highly satisfactory.

After graduation from boot camp the men were sent to CampElliott for further training. They received their "special assignment" there. The Marine Corps had plans, the officer told them, to develop a combat code based on the Navajo language for use in battle situations.Creating and using this code was their special assignment. As he wrote the instructions on the chalkboard, the Navajos watched in amazement. Construct an alphabet based on the Navajo language, choose Navajo words to substitute for military terms, keep the terms short for rapid transmission, and memorize all terms. That was all. Just do it. And that is what they did, working as a team and starting with the asphabet.

Next: Developing the Code