1.2. CRYPTOGRAPHY DURING THE TWO WORLD WARS 9
ping and listening to conversations whenever and wherever possible. It thus
became critically important for the Americans to send coded messages.
As the Choctaws were overheard in conversation in the command posts,
officers thought about using the Choctaw native tongue to send coded mes-
sages. They tried successfully using the Choctaw language with two bat-
talions and found no surprise attacks. The officials now knew that this
linguistic system could work. For the most part these messages were sent
as natural communications without additional coding. There were some
issues, as some words were not in the Chocktaw vocabulary. This led to
codewords being substituted, such as “big gun” for artillery, “stone” for
grenade, and “little gun shoot fast” for machine gun. Telephone and radio
were the most efficient means of communication, yet were highly susceptible
to penetration; however, the use of the Choctaw language baffled the Ger-
mans, who were unable to decipher the language or the coded vocabulary.
Some coded written messages in Choctaw were given to runners to protect
their secrecy from the Germans, who often captured Americans to steal the
valuable information.
The most famous group of code talkers were the Navajos, who were
used in the Pacific during World War II (see Figure 1.3). It all began with
an older gentleman, a WWI veteran himself, reading a paper on the mas-
sive death tolls encountered by the Americans and their efforts to create a
safe encryption code. Philip Johnston was a missionary’s son who grew up
playing with Navajo children and learned their language as a boy. He was
perhaps one of merely 30 non-Navajos who could understand their language.
He knew that the U.S. had befuddled the Germans in World War I by us-
ing Choctaws to transmit messages in their own language on field phones.
Thus, in combination with his war experience and with his intricate knowl-
edge of the Navajo language, he realized that this could be the key to an
unbreakable code. The Navajo marines and the few others who understood
the language trained like all other marines; their desert and rough lifestyle
actually benefited them during rigorous training. But in addition they were
trained for radio communications and were tasked to create a unique code
that would soon be used on the battlefield. Their language was very com-
plex, which helped the security of their encrypted messages. For example,
the Navajo language has at least ten different verbs for different kinds of
carrying, depending on the shape and physical properties of the thing being
carried. Also, depending on the tone or pitch of the speaker’s voice, the
same word could have a multitude of meanings. Even prefixes can be added
to a verb, as many as ten different ones, to the point where one word in
Navajo can take the place of a whole sentence in English.
Although their language seemed quite uninterpretable in its natural
form, they took it a step further. To further encrypt the messages, they
created the code that would be utilized on the front lines. The Navajo code
initially consisted of a 234-word vocabulary, which over the course of WWII
grew to some 450 words. Some military terms not found in the Navajo
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