Military Ciphers Term Paper

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Navajo Code Talkers

The technology and tools of war and for communication therein have developed and changed greatly over the years. However, prior to the times of encryptions and very intricate ciphers, many communications had to occur over the air via radio and the like and this made it quite easy for unintended targets, including the enemy and their sympathizers, to hear everything that was being said as it was being said. As such, it was important to speak in a language or cipher that was not something that could easily be interpreted or cracked even by the unintended target. One such language that ended up paying huge dividends for the United States during World War II and beyond was the Navajo language. While it was eventually scuttled as a war communication cipher in the earlier stages of the Vietnam War, the use of the Navajo language was never broken and provided immeasurable benefit to the United States military and its war efforts.


The person who first suggested the use of the Navajo language as a way to communicate during war was actually not a Navajo at all, but was rather a child of a missionary that lived among the Navajo as he grew up. That person, a man by the name of Phillip Johnston, was a civil engineer in California. He proposed to the United States Marine Corps (USMC) in the earlier stages of World War II that the Navajo language could be used as a way to send and receive messages and that they would not be broken even if they were intercepted in part or in full by enemy forces and/or analysts. Indeed, Johnston had a very good idea as the number of people outside of native Navajo that knew the language was probably less than three dozen and the language was written down absolutely nowhere. It was literally in the heads of the Navajo themselves and the handful of non-Navajo that happened to be able to learn the language (NCT, 2014).

In addition, the Navajo people were all basically limited to the southwestern United States and were practically nowhere else. It stands to this day that absolutely no one without extensive training and exposure to the language could even come close to mastering it and this is why hardly any non-Navajo could or would know how to speak it and also why it was never cracked as a code language. To focus more on the depth and breadth of just how much of a coup the United States Marine Corp pulled off through the use of the code talkers, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members in existence. Of those, roughly one percent (about 540) served in the United States military, all of them in the Marine Corp. About eighty percent of them served as code talkers and the others served in other capacities (Navy, 2014).

One huge upside to the Navajo language was that a message could be transmitted and decoded much quicker than could happen with more traditional ciphers at the time. It was mapped by taking Navajo words and correlating them to letters. For example, the Navajo word "shush" was mapped to the letter B. After some tests were done in 1942, it was decided that the use of the Navajo language would go forward and a directive was sent out to recruit several hundred Navajo soldiers. The first group was enlisted and came to boot camp at Camp Pendleton in mid-1942. Since the language was a bit complicated, there was a stratagem employed whereby slang and terms in Navajo would be linked to similar terminology in English (NCT, 2014).

The one ultimate battle where the Navajo language came through in spades was during Iwo Jima. In total, nearly one thousand messages were sent during the battle and not a single mistake was made amongst the group of six code talkers that were working all day every day during the first 48 hours of the battle. It was later asserted that were it not for the Navajo during Iwo Jima, there is no way that the United States would have won that battle. The codebooks use for the Navajo language were updated and shifted as the war drug on and variants of the code were used during all of the Korean War and during the earlier parts of the Vietnam War before the United States military shifted to other methods. However, the most prolific use of the Navajo language was easily during World War II. Indeed, every single assault that the United States Marines conducted in the Pacific theater of World War II was coupled with the use of Navajo Code Talkers (Navy, 2014).

The fact that the Navajo language was used so heavily in the Pacific theater and that it concurrently was never broken is no small thing given that the Japanese were extremely adept at breaking codes during the course of their warfare. In the post-war assessments, the Japanese were honest about the fact that they did break the code on United States Army and United States Army Air Corps codes but they were never able to do so for the United States Marines communications because they all used the Navajo cipher. This even held true for words that were not in the Navajo language, hence the aforementioned slang and approximations mentioned earlier. For example, the Navajo word for buzzard was used to make reference to an enemy airplane (Navy, 2014).

The last of the 29 original Navajo soldiers that participated in the United States military passed away not even a month before this report was written. Born in New Mexico, Chester Nez was actually born in New Mexico and was at one point ordered to a boarding school that had as part of its method to tell him to not ever speak the Navajo language. Despite this, he went on to serve during the war. After the war ended in 1945, Nez attended the University of Kansas from 1946 to 1952 and majored in commercial arts. He served at Veterans Affairs hospitals for more than a generation and eventually wrote a memoir by the name of Code Talker in 2011. He received a bachelor's degree from the University of Kansas in 2012 and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by George W. Bush in 2001. He died June 4th, 2014 of kidney failure at the age of 93. Two ironic things about his enlistment in the Marine Corps is that he withheld the fact that he was enlisting from his family and he lied about his age to retain his eligibility (Erickson, 2012)(Parker, 2014).

Even with the sheer enormity of what they provided, the Navajo did not get the recognition that they so richly deserved until well after World War II was over and this actually continued for several decades after its use was ended in the earlier stages of the Vietnam War which ran from the late 1960's to the early 1970's. Indeed, the recognition and "atta-boys" did not really come at all until the early 1990's as the United States military was very reluctant to tip their hand as to what they used during those prior wars and how successful they truly were and why. However, with the changing times the recognition is free-flowing. The code talkers have their own exhibit on the Pentagon tour and about three dozen were in attendance when they were openly and graciously honored at the Pentagon at a ceremony in September 1992. The exhibit included an array of photographs, equipment and a summary of the cipher that was used. People that spoke at the event included Arizona Senator John McCain, Navajo President Peterson Zah and then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Atwood. The Navajo who flocked to the event came from…[continue]

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