THE NAVAHO CODE
A peaceable agricultural Native American people related to the Apache, population
about 200,000. They were attacked by Kit Carson and US troops 1864, and were rounded
up and exiled. Their reservation, created 1868, is the largest in the US 65,000 sq km/25,000
sq mi , and is mainly in NE Arizona but extends into NW New Mexico and SE Utah. Many
Navajo now herd sheep and earn an income from tourism, making and selling rugs,
blankets, and silver and turquoise jewelry. Like the Apache, they speak a Southern
Athabaskan language. Navajo speakers served the United States well during WWII. Groups
of young Navajo men were enlisted under a TOP SECRET project to train them as Marine
Corps radiomen. They are officially referred to as the "NAVAJO CODE TALKERS."
Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima the Navajo code talkers took part in every
assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They served in all six
Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting
messages by telephone and radio in their native language , a code that the Japanese never
broke. When a Navajo code talker received a message, what he heard was a string of
seemingly unrelated Navajo words. The code talker first had to translate each Navajo word
into its English equivalent. Then he used only the first letter of the English equivalent in
spelling an English word. Thus, the Navajo words "wol-la-chee" (ant), "be-la-sana" (apple)
and "tse-nill" (axe) all stood for the letter "a." One way to say the word "Navy" in Navajo
code would be "tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di-glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh
(yucca)." Most letters had more than one Navajo word representing them. Not all words
had to be spelled out letter by letter. The developers of the original code assigned Navajo
words to represent about 450 frequently used military terms that did not exist in the Navajo
language. Several examples: "besh- lo" (iron fish) meant "submarine," "dah-he- tih-hi"
(hummingbird) meant "fighter plane" and "debeh-li-zine" (black street) meant "squad."
The idea to use Navajo for secure communications came from Philip Johnston, the son
of a missionary to the Navajos and one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language
fluently. Johnston, reared on the Navajo reservation, was a World War I veteran who knew
of the military's search for a code that would withstand all attempts to decipher it. He also
knew that Native American languages, notably Choctaw, had been used in World War I to
encode messages. Johnston believed Navajo answered the military requirement for an
undecipherable code because Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. Its
syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone...