Veterans Day, originally Armistice Day, is observed November 11th each year in recognition of the contributions and sacrifices made by American military veterans. Some of the more fascinating stories involve Native Americans and their use of the native languages to help develop secure military communications. These veterans are known today as “First American Veterans,” and more commonly as Native American Code Talkers.
The earliest recorded instance of using Native Americans to transmit messages during active war was with Cherokee troops in World War I. They served alongside the 30th Infantry Division during the Second Battle of the Somme, in September 1918. There were also Choctaw code talkers during WW I, and during WW II, Comanche and Seminole code talkers like Edmond Harjo, who received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service.
But perhaps the best known were the Navahos and their fabled World War II missions collectively known today as the “Navaho Code Talkers.” Several hundred joined the war effort to help encrypt military messages by using Navaho words and letters in addition to traditional code techniques to confuse the Japanese.
Navaho was considered by military commanders to be a language virtually unintelligible to those not born to it: one estimate indicated that at the beginning of World War II, fewer than 30 non-Navajo could understand the language. Primarily spoken only on the Navajo lands in the Southwest, meant it had a limited geographical footprint. Its complex grammar, syntax and dialects separated Navaho from even the closest language relatives in the Na-Dene family. And, virtually nothing in the language had ever been published.
Navaho words like jeeshóóʼ(for buzzard) and béésh łóó (for iron fish) were used to describe bombers and submarines, respectively. Combining Navajo words with the code Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet using a standard set of English words to represent letters allowed for multiple levels of encryption and effectively secured the American communication from the Japanese.
It made a big difference in the Pacific war theater: at the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, signal officer with the 5th Marine Division, had six Navajo code talkers sending and receiving hundreds of messages around the clock during the first two days of battle. “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” said Connor.
“We never thought of ourselves as heroes,” said Roy Hawthorne, who served as a Navaho code talker with the United States Marines from 1943 to 1945. “We were just young Navaho men… a group that was willing to place our lives in places of danger to protect our country.”
Even today, the Navaho code is the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered during the time of its use.
The Code Talkers have a well-earned place in history, which is not changed by the fact that today’s technology would render similar techniques charmingly obsolete. Modern code ciphers like AES are considered extremely difficult to break—though it is true that several supposedly secure systems in the past have indeed been broken: WEP, for example, which encrypted Wi-Fi, or the Content Scrambling System for DVDs.
Any code that relies on a key to decipher it can never be regarded as truly “unbreakable,” but few who study the field of cryptography predict a breakthrough on today’s ciphers anytime soon. Modern encryption is just that powerful. Asymmetric key algorithms, for example, use two keys, each of which decrypts the encryption performed by the other key. This means any attack on the code must be performed strictly by trial and error. The longer the key, the more trial and error required—and the more computing power.
As computing power increases, so does the key size needed for security, but this is easily accomplished. One more digit creates exponentially more efforts needed each time. In a nutshell, short perhaps only the efforts of an entity like the NSA, it can safely be said that the best modern encryption is powerful enough to be virtually unbreakable.
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