Navajo Code Talkers

A recent posting on the wordorigins.org discussion forum discussed the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. The subject combines two interests of mine, languages and the history of the war and it also hearkens back to my Army days when I was in charge of communications security for my battalion.

The Navajo Code Talkers were human encryption/ decryption machines that served with the US Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater. In 1942, a Philip Johnston, the son of missionaries to the Navajo Indian nation and one of a handful of non-Navajos who spoke the language, heard of the military’s search for a robust code that could be used on the battlefield and thought that the Navajo might have a solution.

The Marine Corps’ dilemma was that any code that was difficult to break took a long time to encrypt and decrypt. There were many code systems that worked well for strategic communications, where one had the luxury of time to translate into and out of the code, but in the heat of battle time was a commodity in short supply. If one tried to send a coded message, it would probably not be understood in time by the person at the other end. And if one sent a message "in the clear," the message would get through quickly, to intended recipient, but also to the enemy.

Johnston realized that the Navajo language would suit the Marine Corps’ need perfectly. Navajo is an Athapaskan language, closely related to Apache. In the 1940s, it was also an unwritten language, which also meant that one had to travel to Navajo Indian reservations to learn it from a native speaker. (Since the 1940s, an Navajo alphabet has been developed and it is now a written language as well as a spoken one.) In the early 1940s there were only about 50,000 native Navajo speakers (today there are about 150,000) and only about thirty non-Navajos who spoke the language. And none of these were Japanese.

Johnston convinced the Marine Corps to conduct a test of Navajo as a "code." Under simulated battle conditions, Navajo recruits translated a three-line message from English into Navajo, transmitted it, and translated it back into English in about 20 seconds. It took an encryption machine thirty minutes to do the same task. The Marine Corps was sold and the first group of twenty-nine Code Talkers began training in the spring of 1942.

The Navajo code used by the Code Talkers was quite different from the Navajo language. The code used English grammar and syntax but Navajo vocabulary. Navajo words were used in two fashions. One was as a simple cipher for English letters. The second was as the basis for a limited glossary of code words.

The Code Talkers created this glossary consisting of about 450 commonly used English words using Navajo equivalents. Where no Navajo word existed, a common occurrence for many military jargon terms, a word would be created out of Navajo words. A fighter plane, for example, was a da-he-tih-hi, or hummingbird. A bomber was a jay-sho, or buzzard and its bombs were a-ye-shi, or eggs.

If a word was not in the glossary, it would be transmitted as a cipher. Each English letter had several (usually three) Navajo words that could be used to represent it. The letter A could be represented by the Navajo word wol-la-chee, ant, or be-la-sana, apple, or tse-nill, axe. B could be na-hash-chid, badger, or shush, bear, or toish-jeh, barrel. And so on.

The Code Talkers could be rather creative in choosing the translations for the glossary. The word for America was ne-he-mah, meaning our mother. Alaska
was beh-hga, or with winter. Germany, a word that was probably not used too often by the Code Talkers in the Pacific, was besh-be-cha-he, or iron hat. And in that less politically correct time, Japan was beh-na-ali-tsosie, or slant eye.

Planes were named for types of birds. We’ve mentioned fighter planes and bombers, but a dive bomber was known as gini, or chicken hawk, and a torpedo plane was tas-chizzie, or swallow. Similarly, ships were named for aquatic creatures. A battleship was a lo-tso, or whale, and a submarine was a besh-lo, or iron fish.

The translations could be literal, artillery was be-al-doh-tso-lani, meaning many big guns. They could be metaphorical, a fortification was ah-na-sozi, or cliff dwelling, and a grenade was ni-ma-si, or potato. A tank was chay-da-gahi, or tortoise, and a tank destroyer was chay-da-gahi-nail-tsaidi, or tortoise killer. Or they could be plays on the English words, a dispatch, for example, was la-chai-en-seis-be-jay, or dog is patch.

The complete code can be found at http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq61-4.htm.

The Navajo code proved to be especially resilient. The Japanese never broke it. In comparison, many of the other codes used by US forces were broken by the Japanese. Even when the Japanese caught on that Navajo was the basis for the code, it proved unbreakable. They even went so far as to force a Navajo prisoner-of-war, one of twenty captured when the Philippines fell at the start of the war, to listen to recordings of the Code Talkers. While he understood the words, he was unable to deduce the meaning of what was said.

Some 400 Navajos served as Marine Code Talkers during the war. They had a significant impact on the conduct of the war. They transmitted their coded messages efficiently and securely--six Code Talkers with the Fifth Marine Division on Iwo Jima sent and received over 800 messages in the first two days of the battle. Their contribution was considered so important that it remained classified until long after the war was over.

The Code Talkers are an interesting chapter in the history of WWII and of linguistics. With their function now performed by electronic devices, their like will never be seen again.

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