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The Enigma of Code Talkers

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Cryptology, the art and science of using codes for secret messages, has been around since
the dawn of the written language. In fact, one of the earliest recorded uses of a machine
to encode clandestine messages was invented by Julius Caesar more than two thousand years
ago. The Caesar-cipher shifts the alphabet forward three places to create a new alphabet
for sending secret messages. When we think of secret codes, however, the images conjured up
usually are less of Roman emperors and more along the lines of spy movies and espionage
novels – so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the National Cryptologic Museum is
located adjacent to the Maryland headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA), one of
this nation’s top-secret organizations. What isn’t generally known, however, is that the
museum is open to the public. Here you can see the instruments and learn the stories of
events that have led to world-changing events. Some of the exhibits, displays and artifacts
can be seen, explained and, in some cases, actually handled. Along the way, however, you
come to the realization that, of all the machines and paraphernalia that have influenced
the science of cryptology, none has had as much an impact on it as has the human brain.
Consider, for example, the exhibit on Native Americans. During World War II, the U.S. Army
recruited members of various tribes, including the Cherokee, Comanche, Hopi, Navajo,
Seminole and Winnebago. They would go on to perform a vital service – one that has been
credited in saving thousands of lives and in shortening the war by at least two years. This
secret communications plan was an outgrowth of an earlier, World War I program that used a
small band of eight Choctaw Indians as the original American code talkers. By relying on a
code developed using their native tongue, they contributed significantly to a decisive
American victory over the German army on October 26, 1918, during a battle in the Argonne
Forest in France. Their service was followed closely by the U.S. Army’s use of members of
various Native American tribes in World War II. The most famous code talkers, however, were
the Navajos who served valiantly with the Marine Corps in the South Pacific. The documented
use of codes to converse openly actually stretches much farther back in the country’s
history. In the book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground
Railroad, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, the use of cryptology – woven into
the very fabric of handmade quilts – is chronicled. The museum has a replica of one of the
famous Civil War-era quilts on display. Hidden in plain view in the quilt are directions to
“passengers” on the Underground Railroad, given by local “conductors.” These instructions
and directions were to be followed to make it safely to the next station and eventual
freedom. Some of the more popular designs embedded into the quilts were crossroads, log
cabin safe houses and, of course, the constellation of the Big Dipper – which always
pointed to the North Star and freedom. Perhaps the most famous of the many encrypting
machines ever invented was the German Enigma. It became the workhorse of the German
military services, used to encrypt tens of thousands of tactical messages throughout World
War II. However, the Enigma is equally as famous for its insecurities. As a result of the
tireless efforts of many Allied cryptologists, Allied forces were able to read many of the
Enigma-encrypted messages throughout most of the war. One of the most interesting people at
the museum is Assistant Curator Jennifer Wilcox, who literally wrote the short book on the
subject; Solving the Enigma is available free from the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic
History. In one portion of her book, Wilcox straightens out one of the most misunderstood
and fictionalized stories about the Enigma. In October 1942, two men from the British ship
HMS Petard gave their lives retrieving a machine – and top-secret code books – from a
sinking German submarine, the U-559. Hollywood turned this event into U-571, a 2000 movie
staring Matthew McConaughey and Bill Paxton. Unfortunately, the movie appears to credit
Americans instead of the British for successfully carrying out the mission (although the
British earn their just due during an historical timeline that rolls just before the film’s
end credits). The National Cryptologic Museum has one of the most complete collections of
the machine on display anywhere. Even more interesting, most of their Enigmas are in
working order. One is even displayed where a visitor can actually use it! Equally
impressive is the display of a huge Bombe and other peripheral machines. These were built
by the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio, and operated by Navy WAVES in
Washington, D.C., for the Allied Forces to successfully decode Enigma messages. Along with
its entertaining and informative exhibits, the museum offers several free monographs on the
history of codes and ciphers and two free activities workbooks. One of the activities is
geared toward adults, the other toward children. After studying them, both are worth having
to get a better understanding of the subject. The adjacent National Vigilance Park and its
Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial should also be visited when touring the museum. It stands to
honor those who risked, and often lost, their lives performing airborne intelligence
missions during the Cold War.

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