The code breakers – and code talkers

The code breakers – and code talkers

by Christopher Anderson
article from Thursday 30, November, 2017

THE YEAR was 1974 and Captain F.W.Winterbotham was a happy man. After three decades of silence, the secrecy over the wartime activities of the Bletchley Park code breakers was relaxed when the intelligence services of the British Government reluctantly agreed to permit the Captain to publish his book, entitled The Ultra Secret.

Captain Winterbotham, who was responsible for distributing all of the intelligence from Bletchley during the Second World War, reported directly to the Prime Minister Winston Churchill at that time. The work done was, in Churchill's considered opinion, the single most valuable contribution to shortening the war and gaining victory for the Allies in 1945. In the great man's estimation, the war might well have dragged on for another three years. The Bletchley personnel at last were free to discuss their invaluable contribution to the ultimate Allied victory, which, of course, has been well documented.

While the breaking of the German Enigma Code was principally and directly responsible for defeating the German U Boat "wolf pack" menace to shipping in the North Atlantic, our United States allies had a code-breaking problem of their own in the Pacific arena. The toiling US crypto-analysts also had a great break through in intelligence when they eventually cracked the Japanese machine cypher known as "Purple". For example, the Americans deciphered a message outlining a plan to draw the US Navy ships to the Aleutian Islands by faking an attack there. This ruse would allow the Japanese to attack Midway Island, the real objective. The Americans played along and appeared to leave for the Aleutians, but swiftly doubled back. In this vain attempt to surprise, the Japanese were themselves caught completely off guard, and the US Navy won one of the most important and decisive battles of the whole war in the Pacific.

About a year later, another message was intercepted which indicated that Admiral Isoruko Yamamato intended to visit the Solomon Islands. The charismatic Admiral was Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Fleet. The American Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered eighteen P38 fighter aircraft to intercept Yamamato's flight and shoot it down. This they did and succeeded in killing one of the most influential figures of the Japanese High Command.

So, the Enigma and Purple ciphers were eventually broken. In fact, had the machines been used properly, they might never have been broken at all. It was the repeated message keys carelessly used, poor scrambler and plug board settings and stereotypical messages that gave the code breakers a chance to get into the system.

The US commanders, during the Pacific campaign, soon realised that their own highly complicated cipher machines had a serious drawback. Although undeniably accurate, they were painfully slow and were only at their most useful in a headquarters environment or on board a ship. They were not suited to the, at times fast moving, hostile situations in the Pacific jungle arena. The solution to this problem turned out to be a brilliant example of lateral thinking.

Philip Johnston, an engineer based in Los Angeles, was too old for the armed services, but still was keen to serve his country. Early in 1942 he began to formulate an encryption system inspired by his childhood experiences. The son of a Protestant missionary, Johnston had been brought up on the Navajo reservation of Arizona and, as a result, he became fully immersed in the Navajo culture. He was one of the extremely few people outside the tribe who could speak their language fluently. He acted frequently as an interpreter for the tribe and once even appeared in the White House as such. Johnston was fully aware that the Navajo language was impenetrable for anyone outside the tribe. He was struck that the Navajo, or perhaps another Native American language could be used as a virtually unbreakable code. If each battalion in the Pacific employed a pair of Native Americans as radio operators secure communications could be guaranteed.

Johnston pursued his idea and was able to demonstrate it, with the aid of two Navajo's, to a panel of senior Marine officers. It was a flawless test and authorisation was immediately and with great enthusiasm, granted for a pilot project to be conducted. One essential was to find a tribe capable of supplying a large number of men who were fluent in English and were also literate. Attention focused, therefore, on the four largest tribes, the Navajo, the Sioux, the Chippewa and the Pima-Papago.

Several factors combined to swing the decision in favour of the Navajo. Like all of the Native Americans, they were eager to fight for their country, albeit a country that, in all honesty, had not done much for them. Also, of all the languages, theirs by some distance was the most complicated and unique. For that reason, they had never been studied or infiltrated in any way by foreign students; The Navajo dialect was even something of a mystery to the other tribes.

A school was organised to increase the Navajo literacy in English, when it was then realised that a lexicon would have to be compiled to overcome the fact that there were no Navajo words to translate modern military jargon. This was completed post haste with the help of the trainees. This lexicon made the language even more outlandishly bizarre, as illustrated by the following examples:

Fighter plane - became Hummingbird or Da-he-tih-hi. Bomber became - Buzzard or Jay-sho. Battleship became Whale or Lo-tso and so on...

Another advantage of using the Navajo tribe was the fact they were well used to memorising everything important, as part of their culture, so there were no notebooks to fall into enemy hands. The impenetrability of the Navajo code was all down to the fact that the Navajo belongs to the Na-Dene family of languages, which has no link with any Asian or European language.

The Navajo's were an outstanding success, showing great courage and dedication in battle conditions, throughout the Pacific campaign. The greatest tribute to the Navajo is the simple fact that their code was never broken. Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, the Japanese Chief of Intelligence, admitted that, although they had broken the American Air Force code, they had failed to make any impact on the Navajo code.

Although the Navajo volunteers served bravely and well in action, their greatest danger came from instances of "friendly fire" from other gung-ho American units who assumed that the Navajo's were speaking Japanese and promptly opened fire on them! 

Like the staff at Bletchley Park, the Navajo's were ignored for decades, but in 1982 they were honoured when the United States Government named 14th August as "National Navajo Code Talkers Day". A belated gesture, to be sure, but at least some small recognition for the latter-day Braves of Navajo. 

PC 30B Chris Anderson served in the Edinburgh City Police (1954-84) and was a valued member of its Pipe Band that won the Grade 1 World Championships in 1963, 1964, 1971, 1972 and 1975. In his eightieth year (2012-13) he wrote many articles for based upon his wealth of policing and piping anecdotes. Following his passing in September we are pleased to publish as a tribute a mixture of unpublished stories and old repeats such as this one for readers to enjoy.

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