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Mar Jun 18 13:24:02 CEST 2002


Navajos Fought Japanese for Ne-He-Mah

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June 15, 2002

When Navajos Fought Japanese for Ne-He-Mah

It is the most romantic story in American cryptology. To keep the Japanese
from getting American secrets in World War II, Navajos - among the original
Americans - spoke over the radio in their native tongue.

The new film "Windtalkers," which opened nationally yesterday, celebrates
these Marine Corps codetalkers with typical Hollywood overstatement. The
idea that each codetalker had a bodyguard who was to kill him if he was in
danger of being captured never happened. (Marines don't kill other
marines.) And the claim that the Navajo code "was ultimately the only one
never broken" isn't true either. Actually most American cryptograms were
not solved by the Japanese, who read at best a couple of antiquated
diplomatic codes and some low-level military cryptosystems.

But the history of the real codetalkers is no less remarkable. The idea of
using Navajos to conceal the content of Marine messages came from Philip
Johnston, a missionary's son who grew up on their reservation speaking the
language. Of course, people have long spoken in foreign languages when they
didn't want eavesdroppers to understand them. In World War I, eight
Choctaws manned trench telephones for the Army's 36th Division. According
to an article in the scholarly quarterly Cryptologia by Stephen Huffman,
trials were made during World War II with Comanches, Ojibwas, Oneidas,
Sac-Foxes and Muskogees.

But Mr. Johnston saw that the 50,000-member Navajo tribe offered a
sufficiently large pool of English- and Navajo-speaking young men. And he
knew that no Germans, Japanese or Italians had studied the language, whose
complexities defy both interception and interpretation. It includes sounds
that don't exist in German, Italian, Japanese or English. For example, the
word doc pronounced with a low tone means "not"; with a high tone, it means
"and." And while English and Navajo distinguish between unvoiced and voiced
consonants (f is unvoiced, v is voiced), Navajo also has ejective
consonants, expressed with a burst of breath. An enemy wanting to decode
messages in Navajo would first have to transcribe those unfamiliar sounds.
But would the decoder know what to listen for and how to notate them?

Moreover, Navajo verbs have different grammatical modes to denote different
points in time, among other things. A speaker must use one form if he
himself was aware of the start of rain, another if he believes rain was
falling for some time in his locality before he noticed it, and so on. The
Navajo verb, one anthropologist has said, is "like a tiny imagist poem."
Thus na'il-dil means "You are accustomed to eat plural separable objects
one at a time." This linguistic and phonetic complexity makes the language
not only difficult for non-Navajos to understand but almost impossible to

Mr. Johnston persuaded the Marines to let him demonstrate his idea. On Feb.
28, 1942, four Navajos living in the Los Angeles area were given five
messages to send in Navajo. Although there were inaccuracies when a Navajo
misheard the message, Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel, commander of the
Amphibious Force of the Pacific Fleet, realized the potential of the
Navajos. He recommended to the commandant of the Marine Corps that they be
recruited and trained for secret spoken communications.

By the beginning of May, the first 29 had been inducted, and they received
basic training and were sent to Camp Elliott, Calif., to prepare as
codetalkers. Their language did not have words for "bomber," "tank,"
"colonel" and other military terms, and sometimes words had to be spelled
out in English so that the English-speaking commanders could transmit and
receive orders unambiguously. To overcome these difficulties, the Navajos
devised a code. This had to be memorized, as no paper copies were to be
carried into the combat zones where the codetalkers worked. For military
items, they chose words that evoked the objects themselves. Thus, tank was
chay-da-ga-hi, or "tortoise." Observation plane was ne-ahs-jah, "owl."
Brigadier general was so-a-la-ih, "one star." Soldiers were
lei-cha-ih-yil-knee-hi, "dog faces."

Some terms had to be arbitrary: din-neh-ih which means "clan," was used for
corps; has-clish-nih or "mud," for platoon.

The codetalkers spelled English words by using the Navajo word whose
English translation had the initial letter needed. For a, for example, the
codetalkers said wol-la-chee, "ant," or be-la-sa-na, "apple," or tse-null,
"axe." If a Navajo term would serve, they used that: tse-ye-chee for
"cliff." They used Navajo numbers. By the end of the war, the code
dictionary ran eight typed pages and was used by about 420 Marine
codetalkers in the Pacific.

A chief advantage of the code talker system was its speed. Encrypting a
written message, radioing it in Morse code, transcribing the incoming text
and decrypting it often took an hour or more. The Navajos handled a message
in minutes.

Electrical scramblers that turned talk into incomprehensible, Donald
Duck-like sounds for transmission existed during World War II. But they
were bulky and delicate, not suitable for front-line work and not as secure
as the Navajo system. The Germans cracked the A-3 trans-Atlantic scrambler
and eavesdropped on some Roosevelt-Churchill conversations. The electronic
Sigsaly system, which was absolutely secure, took up as much space as a
freight car. Today, secure cellular telephones encrypt using tiny chips.

But during the Pacific war, with such technology not available, the Navajo
codetalkers provided secure, authenticated oral communications during
battle. Indeed, the usefulness of their information often expired within
hours. They were first deployed on Sept. 18, 1942, on Guadalcanal. In that
island-hopping war they served as well on Bougainville, New Britain,
Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

During the first 48 hours of the Iwo Jima landing, the signal officer of
the Fifth Marine Division operated six Navajo radio nets, whose codetalkers
sent more than 800 messages without error. It was a codetalker message that
reported that the Marines had reached the summit of Mount Suribachi, where
the famous flag-raising took place. The Japanese never interpreted a single

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