News: The unbreakable code
Story by Pfc. Samuel Ranney
BARSTOW, Calif. - Marine Administrative Message 635/12 encourages Marines to take the time to honor and recognize the past and present contributions made by Native Americans during the month of November, declared as National Native American History Month.
Native Americans have been serving in the United Stated military for more than 200 years. They have made countless contributions and sacrifices for our country … one of the most prominent of those being the code talkers of World War II.
During the beginning of WWII, Japanese troops were breaking American codes left and right … giving them the ability to predict American actions ahead of time; this cost many lives. The codes had to be so complex to get around the Japanese that American troops were spending hours to transcribe a single message.
Spending more time than they had on codes, the idea of using the Navajo language, a language with no alphabet, as a code was brought to the U.S. military’s attention. During a testing phase, under simulated combat conditions, the Navajo could encrypt, communicate and decipher English messages in 20 seconds … a task that took machines at that time 30 minutes.
In 1942, the first 29 Navajo code talkers, made up of farmers and sheep herders, enlisted in the Marine Corps. Without birth certificates, men ranging from 15 to 35-years-old passed basic training with ease due to their desert upbringing.
Following basic training, this first group of Navajo created the code based on their language on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton; the code was unwritten and had to be memorized before they deployed overseas.
The code started at 200 terms and escalated to more than 600 by the end of the war. The Navajo messages only took seconds to communicate and were found to be unbreakable by the Japanese.
The Navajo used their native terms to symbolize military terms that they resembled. For example, their term for ‘turtle’ meant tank; and their term for ‘chicken-hawk,’ bird that dives on its prey, for a dive-bomber. They also used terms to symbolize letters that the English translation started with. For example, ‘Wo-La-Chee’ stood for ant and represented the letter ‘A.’
During the first two days of Iwo Jima, six Navajo Marines coded more than 800 transmissions; they saved countless lives throughout WWII, with the accuracy, speed, and complexity of their ability to transcribe the code.
When asked why they enlisted, one Navajo Marine, Keith Little, explained they wanted to protect their people, land and country. When these Marines returned to the U.S. however, their contributions went unrecognized due to the secrecy of their code at the time.
It wasn’t until 2001 they were officially recognized -- the original 29 code talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal and approximately 250 other code talkers received the Congressional Silver Medal.
Two of the Congressional Silver Medal recipients, Nelson Draper Sr. and Joe Morris, worked on Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif., following their enlistment. Morris died in July, 2011 and Draper passed away September of this year.
Marines and civilian employees on MCLB Barstow are encouraged to pay homage to these men and to all the Native American troops, past and present.
According to the MARADMIN, one third of able-bodied Native American men joined the military during WWII; and American Indians have continuously served this nation with great honor.
They contribute daily to the success and legacy of the Corps. Their proud warrior tradition of service to this country exemplifies the Marine Corps’ values of honor, courage and commitment.