By Judy Berman
Decoding secret messages is a plot device in some mystery novels. In real life, it can mean the difference between life and death.
In Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel, “Dracula,” law clerk Jonathan Harker writes in shorthand to his fiancée back in England. He suspects he is a prisoner in Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle.
Dracula, cannot decipher the shorthand, which is a system of symbols used to take notes rapidly by hand. He intercepts them before leaving for England. Harker remains at the castle, at the mercy of Dracula’s “brides,” until Harker escapes.
The 2004 children’s art mystery, “Chasing Vermeer,” by Blue Balliett, used a pentomino code. Two sixth-graders, Calder Pillay and Petra Andalee, work to break the code so that they can recover a stolen Vermeer, “A Lady Writing.” A code is hidden in illustrations throughout the book.
A pentomino is one of the 12 plane figures that can be formed by joining five squares together side-to-side. The 12 different pentominoes are named after the letters of the Latin alphabet they resemble.
It was a code of a different sort that was used to save lives during World War II. It consisted of 211 words. Members of an ancient nation, whose language few understood, transmitted secret tactical messages and instructions. The people who spoke this language were called “The Navajo Code Talkers.”
“Code talking, however, was pioneered by Choctaw Indians serving in the U.S. Army during World War I,” according to Wikipedia. They served alongside the British during the second battle of the Somme in 1918.
During World War II, Philip Johnson proposed using the Navajo as code talkers to the U.S. Marines. He was not a Navajo, but grew up on a Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary, and he spoke their language fluently.
“Johnson’s report stressed the complexity of the Navajo language and the fact that it remained mostly ‘unwritten’ because an alphabet or other symbols of purely native origin did not exist,” according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Plus, the languages of Native American tribes varied so greatly that one tribe could not understand another.
It’s estimated that about 400 Native American Marines acted as code talkers for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Some of the Navajo translations were verbatim. Others “were Navajo terms that had been imbued with new, distinctly military means in order to compensate for the lack of military terminology in the Navajo vocabulary. For example, ‘fighter plane’ was called ‘da-ha-tih-hi,’ which means ‘humming bird’ in Navajo, and ‘dive bomber’ was called ‘gini,’ which means ‘chicken hawk,’ ” according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Some who served alongside these “walking secret code talkers” credited them in the Marines’ success in taking Iwo Jima. But the program went unrecognized until it was declassified in 1968. President Ronald Reagan gave the code talkers a Certification of Recognition in 1982. In 2001, the first 29 code talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal. Other Navajo, who later qualified to be code talkers in WW II, were given the Congressional Silver Medal.
The Japanese had attempted to decipher the code after they captured a Navajo sergeant, Joe Kieyoomia, in the Philippines in 1942 during the Bataan Death March. But Kieyoomia had not been trained in the code talk. Efforts to “persuade” him failed.
The spoken code was never cracked.
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Main Photo: Navajo Code Talkers, Saipan, June 1944 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Navajo_Code_Talkers.jpg
Photo: First 29 U.S. Marine Corps code-talker recruits being sworn in at Fort Wingate, N.M. http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:(First_29_Navajo_U.S._Marine_Corps_code-talker_recruits_being_sworn_in_at_Fort_Wingate,_NM.)_-_NARA_-_295175.tif&page=1
Photo: Code Talkers – Navajo – Monument, Ocala, Fla. – Memorial Park http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/ad/Code_Talkers.jpg/640px-Code_Talkers.jpg
Video: Code Talkers – This is a music video about the Navajo Code Talkers involvement at the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. (about 4 min. 33 sec.)
Video: A small band of warriors created an unbreakable code from the ancient language of the Navajo people and change the course of modern history. (The Official Website of the Navajo Code Talkers) http://www.navajocodetalkers.org
Video: True Whispers: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers | PBS (56 min. 11 sec.) http://www.iptv.org/video/detail.cfm/12908/twsn_20101208_true_whispers_story_navajo