Copyright John T. Reed 2002
A reader and I recently debated the value of Navajo Code Talkers in the Pacific during World War II. I referred the guy to my article about that movie. He said it was not on the web so it must have been in my newsletter. He’s right. 6/02 issue. Here it is.
A movie (Wind Talkers) says that Navajo Code Talkers used an unbreakable code decisively in the Pacific during World War II. The code talkers were real, brave, and apparently succeeded, but the notion that the Navajo language would be a difficult code to break is unequivocal nonsense.
Studying codes was a hobby of mine in my youth. I worked with codes in the Army and several of my football coaching books discuss codes for sending plays in, calling audibles, and so forth.
The great trick is supposed to be that the Navajo language was unwritten, therefore unknown to the Japanese. True, but irrelevant. The Navajo code is a single-substitution cypher, which is the easiest kind to break. Here is the actual, entire, freaking, World War II Navajo Code. The Wikipedia write-up on code talkers more or less agrees with me that the code was simple and easy to to break but they try to hype the difficulty of the Navajo language, which, as I say, is irrelevant other than for authenticating tha the speaker is really a Navajo and not a Japanese impersonator. But unless the Japanese speaking English to pretend to be American spent his early childhood in America, any American could also recognize him as a non-American on the radio.
In the World War II Battle of the Bulge in Europe, Germas who spoke excellent American English dressed in U.S. uniforms and went behind our lines. Once we realized they were there, they got caught by being quizzed about American baseball and such.
The cryptograms in the newspaper are single-substitution. They always substitute the same letter for another. A newspaper cryptogram might be about any subject. Military messages are only about bullets and tanks and battleships and such. You get tons of hints from who is talking to whom and when and where.
Navajo had no written language. So? The U.S. military could have given a couple of seven-year-olds—or a couple of guys on KP—a list of military message words and asked them to come up with a brand new language limited to those words. That would be even better than Navajo because there were tens of thousands of people who spoke Navajo. But no one other than the seven-year-olds or potato peelers who made it up could speak that new language.
In a single-substitution code, the same word or phrase is always substituted for the word being encoded. If, for example, “Coyo” meant B-26, the Japanese would soon figure that out from analysis of who was sending to whom and what transpired after the message was sent. For example, the word “Coyo” would often be used by Army Air Force units, but rarely by Army or Marines. In normal military code, B-26 might be “mwu” the first time it appeared in a message, “tdi” the second time, and so forth.
People who wrotie about it make much of the difficulty of speaking the Navajo language. That was totally irrelevant. If the Japanese had gotten excited about breaking this code, they would have written down each sound and after some time, figured out what each sound meant in military terminology. For example, gini meant dive bomber in Marine code talk in World War II. It happens to also mean hawk in Navajao, but who cares? The Japanese code breakers would cut out the middle man and ignore what it meant in Navajo. All they cared about was what it meant in Marine.
Having a Navajo speaker, which they did for a while in captured U.S. Marine named Joe Kieyoomia at Corregidor, could have made their code beraking a litle easier. He was Navajo and spoke the language, but he was not aware of how some Navajo words were used to mean military terms. The Japanese somehow figured out that the Navajos were talking in code on U.S. radios and demanded that Joe translate. He translated the Navajo to English for them, but did not know the military meaings of the various Navajo animal words. They tortured him for what they assumed was a lie. Knowing that gini meant hawk might give you a clue that it also meant dive bomber, but it really was never necessary to know that gini meant anything other than dive bomber.
In Windtalkers, they almost always encoded messages that needed no encoding, like calling in fire on the enemy—an example that was in the movie. Since the fire in question arrives in about 30 seconds, what would be the point of decoding it—to yell, “Duck?” One valid use of the Navajos was to authenticate the American origin of a message. Many Japanese spoke fluent English. None spoke Navajo.
I suspect the only reason we got away with Navajo is that they used it only on low-powered radios like walkie talkies and the Japanese did not have competent code breakers far forward enough to intercept and decode such “local phone calls.” Truth is, using Navajo was only slightly better than pig Latin.
I am not trying to put down the Navajos who did this. I AM trying to put down those who dreamed it up and who thought it was a great idea. At this point, the Navajos themselves ought to have been told by someone that their code was dopey by military or even amateur hobbyist code breaker standards. If so, they ought not be still playing this story for all it’s worth.
To anyone who knows anything about codes, this is absurdly easy to break. We actually broke the World War II Japanese diplomatic code (Purple) and their naval code, both of which were extremely complex and used multiple rotors like the German Enigma code such that if you mentioned the B26 bomber six times in the same message, it would always have different code letters. Perhaps the front-line Japanese intelligence guys did not break the code because they did not think the Americans would use any code so ridiculously childish as having Navajos call tanks turtles.
The fact that the Navajos first translated military terminology like tank or P51 into other words—typically animal names like turtle and hawk because Navajo had no words for such advanced technology—then translated those English words into Navajo is irrelevant. It would not matter to code breakers whether Coyo was the Navajo word for eagle or the Navajo word for B26. In the context of the Pacific theater, it always meant B26.
Think about it, folks. This is so simple and obvious that you don’t need me or anyone else to prove it to you.
The reader keeps saying the fact that the Japanese did not break it proves it was an extremely strong code. Who says they tried to break it? Many Japanese had lived or studied in the U.S. Predictably, such Japanese soldiers would be asked to monitor American radio conversations. So one day a couple of English-speaking Japanese were listening —a few hours before they were killed, and suddenly heard Navajo rather than English, looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. Then the PR people for the Navajos, the Marines, Native Americans, etc. turn that meager incident into evidence that we clever Americans and our clever noble savages stumped the entire Japanese intelligence department.
Pray tell what secrets did we have in Pacific island warfare in World War II other than the date and location of our next island invasion. Once we landed, we always did the same thing: kill all the Japanese using bullets, grenades, satchel charges, flame throwers, tank guns, bazookas, artillery, and air power. You only use code to send secret messages because it slows communication down. What secrets did the Marines have after they hit the beach? The one shown in the movie was that they were calling in naval gunfire on Japanese caves. Well, how the hell would that be a secret to the Japanese? Marines fighting against Japanese in caves while U.S. naval warships sat offshore ask the ships to bombard the caves. Stop the presses! Who would ever have guessed the Americans would use such an unexpected, novel trick?
The Navajo code was a total joke as codes go. The code in Edgar Allen Poe’s story the Gold Bug was far stronger than the Navajo code, yet still absurdly below military standards. (Poe is one of West Point’s most famous drop outs.) Any debate about how useful the Navajo Code was tells us nothing about the military communications issue but volumes about the eagerness of some people to believe a bunch of feel-good, make-the-minorities-look-good-for-a-change, bullshit.
Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military