Cracking the Code: Six of the Most Important Code Advances of the 20th Century


The Code Talkers of World War I

As the intelligence community grew, different countries needed new codes to use to communicate secretly, without sharing information with either their allies or their enemies. Most codes were quickly broken by cryptographers, increasing the challenges for military intelligence, radio operators and telegram operators. Communications were easily intercepted and decrypted.

On the ground in France in World War I, the United States opted for a new solution to the problem of the easily-broken code. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the United States found that the Germans were intercepting messages sent over radio lines, and capturing runners sent to deliver messages. The solution to this problem was discovered accidentally, when a captain in the 142nd Regiment walked past two Choctaw soldiers in conversation, in their native Choctaw. The men knew of other Choctaw soldiers, and soon a network, the Choctaw Telephone Squad, was born. The men simply spoke to one another in Choctaw; there was no need for additional coding. Messages could be passed easily from one Choctaw soldier to another, then translated to English by the Choctaw code talker.

There were eight men in the Choctaw Telephone Squad, originally, with some 19 in total in the Squad eventually. They created their own codes within the language to use for things that they did not have words for, like machine gun.

This formed the basis for the code talker programs used in World War II as well. Native American languages proved an ideal choice for codes for several reasons. First, there were a very limited number of speakers; most tribes numbered 20,000 or less, and very few speakers had ever left the United States, dramatically reducing the possibility of another country finding a speaker of the language. These languages were almost entirely oral, with very few written materials; those that existed were only minimally circulated. Without access to a translatable document, deciphering the language proved impossible. While the Choctaw provided code talking in World War I, the Navajo were the primary code talkers in World War II.