An anti-racist post on social media has reminded PETER FROST of an amazing story from 75 years ago
AFTER Donald Trump tried to make racist rants respectable again, many US racists have come out of the shadows.
One story doing the rounds on social media reminded me of the time I spent, a year or so ago, in the south-west of the US with some of the land’s original inhabitants. They were members of the Navajo nation.
Here is the story — a woman is on a public phone speaking a foreign language. A man overhears her and declares: “You are in America. If you can’t speak English, go back to Mexico.”
Calmly the woman tells him: “I’m Navajo and I’m speaking my own, very old, language. If you can only speak English then go back to England.”
Let me take you back 75 years. As 1942 dawned, the war was not going well for the US and its allies. The Japanese had crippled the US navy’s proud Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour on December 7 1941.
Meanwhile in Europe, France had fallen to Germany’s Blitzkrieg and Britain was still suffering the nazis’ relentless night-time bombing.
Codes, and breaking them, would prove crucial in the allied war effort. The story of Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park cryptographers has been told many times.
For the US armed forces communications were also a nightmare. Japanese cryptographers, many educated at US universities, were having no problem breaking top-secret military codes in days rather than weeks.
As a result, US battle plans became known to the enemy almost immediately. The result was an appalling loss of US lives.
One man, Philip Johnston, a middle-aged civil engineer from Los Angeles, thought he might have a solution.
From the age of four, Johnson had lived on the Navajo reservation where his parents were missionaries. He knew the Navajo language was one of the most complicated in the world.
Johnston eventually convinced Lieutenant Colonel James E Jones, the marines’ signal corps communications officer, that a code based on the Navajo language could not be broken by the enemy.
Johnston’s confidence in his theory lay in the fact that the Navajo language includes a number of words that, when spoken with varying inflections, may have many different meanings.
To most listeners, the language is virtually incomprehensible. The use of the Navajo tongue was confined almost entirely to the reservation; few non-Navajos spoke or understood it.
Four Navajos demonstrated linguistic capability in tests for a group of sceptical marine staff officers. Two Navajos were given a typical military field order to transmit in their own language to two more Navajos in another room.
When retranslated back into English, the message received by the second pair proved to be an exact copy of the order as it was given.
Marine code experts were amazed at the speed and accuracy of the interpretation.
First 30 and then 200 Navajo volunteers came forward to work in marine communications.
Some members of the group were underage, but as birth records were not usually kept on the reservation, it was easy for a recruit to lie or be mistaken about his age.
For almost all of them, travel was a brand new experience. Some had never been off the reservation, and many had never ridden on a bus or train.
The majority of them had never seen an ocean and did not realise that they would soon be a part of the ferocious Pacific war.
The Navajos devised a new code which, when transmitted in their own language, would completely baffle their Japanese enemies.
The code’s words were short and easy to learn. A 26-letter phonetic alphabet, it used Navajo names for 18 animals or birds, plus the words ice for I, nut for N, quiver for Q, Ute for U, victor for V, cross for X, yucca for Y and zinc for Z.
In jungle combat in the Pacific, the Navajos’ ingenuity, scouting and tracking ability and utter disregard for hardships stood them in remarkably good stead.
Eventually Navajo code-talkers served all over the Pacific and with other units as well.
On an August evening in 1945, the Navajos received the coded message that everyone had been waiting for.
After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki three days later, Emperor Hirohito had urged the Japanese nation to surrender. The war was over.
In all, 421 Navajos had served as code-talkers. The Japanese never even came close to breaking the code. Not one message was ever successfully intercepted and decoded.
Like much about wartime codes, the Navajo story remained a secret until 1968 when the part it played in the US victory was finally recognised.
Let’s leave the last word to a Japanese general who admitted after World War II that the most highly skilled Japanese cryptographers had not been able to decipher the marines’ messages.
When told it was a code based on a Native American language, he said: “Thank you, that is a puzzle I thought would never be solved.”
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 11 January 2016.