A varied and sometimes erratic record of what I'm learning inside and outside of the classroom

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Navajo: The Unbroken Code of World War II

So our discussion about code today in Digital Civilization and a recent article I read for my linguistics class got me interested in the Navajo code talkers of World War II, and this afternoon I happened to walk by a bulletin board with a flyer advertising a presentation at BYU to be held this evening by one of the few actual honest-to-goodness Navajo code talkers still living. How cool is that? It was especially appropriate with today being Veteran's Day. So I show up at the appointed time, only to be told that the presenter was involved in a minor car accident earlier today; he is fine, but the event is canceled. Darn, darn, darn. I was so excited, too. So, due to this unfortunate circumstance, my research will have to suffice.

During World War II, specifically the war in the Pacific, the U.S. Marine Corps used Navajo soldiers to transmit military communications with great success; the Japanese never managed to crack the code, and these code talkers are considered instrumental in the victory at Iwo Jima--the entire operation was conducted through Navajo communication. This video talks about the assault on Iwo Jima and the Navajo code-talkers' role; in parts you hear what the communication might sound like.

Fascinating, isn't it? So what made this code unbreakable for the Japanese intelligence? I'd like to explain using some computer security concepts we talked about in class and information from the article I read for linguistics entitled "The Unbreakable Language Code in the Pacific Theatre of World War II" by M. Gyi, a professor at Ohio University.
  • Confidentiality: "Prior to World War II, German and Japanese linguists attempted to study the languages of American Indians to forestall the use of Indians as U.S. 'Code Talkers' in warfare. But their attempt was foiled when war broke out." Thus, only American intelligence could interpret these messages, even if they happened to be intercepted.
  • Integrity: "Navajo language is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Even if someone did learn it, it is impossible to imitate or counterfeit its phonetic variations." There are ever-so-subtle nuances of the Navajo language that are almost impossible for a non-native speaker to learn.
  • Authenticity: "There were only 28 non-Navajos who could speak the language. These few were linguists, anthropologists, and missionaries, and none of these were German or Japanese." All Navajos, code-talkers or not, even when captured remained loyal to the United States.
  • Availability: "The Navajo tribe was large enough to furnish a sufficient number of trained code-talkers in numerous Marine operations."
Other factors contributing to the success of the code were that a) there was no written Navajo language at the time, b) the language proved versatile in dealing with new objects and experiences, and c) the code-talkers displayed speed and accuracy in their communications; Gyi quotes Lt. Colonel J.P. Berkeley, Commanding Officer of Code Training Program, in saying that
"It was demonstrated time and time again when these [Navajo code-talker] teams were given complicated reports and instructions to transmit by voice over radio and wire that not a single mistake was made, a fact that our regular communication men speaking in code could not match."
Wow--pretty intense, right? So, the question is, was the code truly unbreakable by today's computer standards? The answer? Probably not. Due to the alphabetic system used, a native speaker working closely with foreign intelligence probably could have cracked the code fairly easily. Thankfully for us, as I mentioned before, all Navajo code-talkers remained loyal to the United States of America.

With that in mind: Veterans--we salute you! A heartfelt thanks to all those who have served our country.

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