This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program
EXPLORATIONS. Today we visit a small museum in the state of
Maryland. It is called the National Cryptologic Museum. It is
filled with information that was once very secret.
German Nazi, American and Japanese coding machines.
(Photo - Ed Bunyan)
The little National Cryptologic Museum is on the Fort George
G. Meade military base near Washington, D-C. It tells the story
of cryptology and the men and women who have worked in this
unusual profession. The word cryptology comes from the Greek
kryptos logos. It means ¡°hidden word.¡±
Cryptology is writing or communicating using secret methods
to hide the meaning of your words.
The museum shows many pieces of equipment that were once used
to make information secret. It also has equipment that was used
in an effort to read secret information. One unusual example
is a kind of bed covering called a quilt. Quilts are made by
hand. They usually have a colorful design sewn on them. One
special kind of quilt was used to pass on secret information.
In the early history of the United States, black people from
Africa were used as slaves in the southern states. Slaves sewed
quilts that had very unusual designs. These quilts really told
stories. The quilts were made with designs that told slaves
how to escape to freedom in the northern states.
The museum has an example that shows a design that represents
the North Star. Slaves knew they had to travel from the South
to the North to escape to freedom. The quilt tells a slave to
follow the North Star. Other designs in the quilt represent
roads and a small house.
History experts say about sixty-thousand slaves escaped to
freedom during the period of slavery. The experts do not know
how much the quilts really helped, but they did provide needed
information for those trying to escape.
The Cryptologic Museum has several examples that show the importance
of creating secret information, or trying to read secret information
written by foreign nations. Secret information is also called
One of the most important displays at the museum shows American
attempts to read Japanese military information codes during
World War Two. The Japanese Navy used special machines to change
their written information into secret codes. This coded information
was then transmitted by radio to ships and bases. Much of this
information contained secret military plans and orders.
The leaders of the Japanese Navy believed no one could read
or understand the secret codes. They were wrong. An American
Naval officer named Joseph Rochefort worked very hard to break
the Japanese code. He did this in an effort to learn what the
Japanese Navy was planning.
Mister Rochefort did his work in a small building on the American
naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was early in nineteen-forty-two.
The American naval commander in the Pacific Ocean was Admiral
Chester Nimitz. His forces were much smaller than the Japanese
Naval forces. And the Japanese had been winning many victories.
((SOUND: High-speed Morse code))
Joseph Rochefort had worked for several months to read the
secret Japanese Naval code called J-N-Twenty-Five. If he could
read enough of the code, Mister Rochefort would be able to provide
Admiral Nimitz with very valuable information. Admiral Nimitz
could use this information to make the necessary decisions to
plan for battle. By the early part of the year, Mister Rochefort
and the men who worked with him could read a little less than
twenty percent of the Japanese J-N-Twenty-Five code.
From the beginning of nineteen-forty-two, the Japanese code
carried information that discussed a place called ¡°A-F.¡±
Mister Rochefort felt the Japanese were planning an important
battle aimed at ¡°A-F.¡±
But where was ¡°A-F¡±? After several
weeks, Mister Rochefort and other naval experts told Admiral
Nimitz that their best idea was that the ¡°A-F¡±
in the Japanese code was the American-held island of Midway.
Admiral Nimitz said he could not plan an attack or a defense
based on only an idea. He needed more information.
The Navy experts decided to try a trick. They told the American
military force on Midway to broadcast a false message. The message
would say the island was having problems with its water-processing
equipment. The message asked that fresh water be sent immediately
to the island. This message was not sent in code.
Several days later, a Japanese radio broadcast in the J-N-Twenty-Five
code said that ¡°A-F¡± had little water.
Mister Rochefort had the evidence he needed. ¡°A-F¡±
was now known to be the island of Midway. He also told Admiral
Nimitz the Japanese would attack Midway on June Third.
Admiral Nimitz used this information to secretly move his small
force to an area near Midway and wait for the Japanese Navy.
The battle that followed was a huge American victory. History
experts now say the Battle of Midway was the beginning of the
American victory in the Pacific. That victory was possible because
Joseph Rochefort learned to read enough of the Japanese code
to discover the meaning of the two letters ¡°A-F.¡±
((SOUND: Morse code))
One American code has never been broken. Perhaps it never will.
It was used in the Pacific during World War Two. For many years
the government would not discuss this secret code. Listen for
a moment to this very unusual code. Then you may understand
why the Japanese military forces were never able to understand
any of it.
((MUSIC: Navajo song))
You may have guessed that the code is in the voice of a Native
American. The man you just heard is singing a simple song in
the Navajo language. Very few people outside the Navajo nation
are able to speak any of their very difficult language.
At the beginning of World War Two, the United States Marine
Corps asked members of the Navajo tribe to train as Code Talkers.
The Cryptologic Museum says about four-hundred Navajos served
as Marine Corps Code Talkers during the war. They could take
a sentence in English and change it into their language in about
twenty seconds. A code machine at that time took about thirty
minutes to do the same work.
The Navajo Code Talkers took part in every battle the Marines
entered in the Pacific during World War Two. The Japanese were
very skilled at breaking codes. But they were never able to
understand any of what they called ¡°The Marine Code.¡±
For many years after the war, the American public did not know
about the valuable work done by the Marine Navajo Code Talkers.
The United States government kept their work a secret and their
language continued to be a valuable method of passing secret
((MUSIC: Navajo song))
A version of the German Enigma.
The Cryptologic Museum has many pieces of mechanical and electric
equipment used to change words into code. It also has almost
as many examples of machines used to try to change code back
into useful words.
Perhaps the most famous is a World War Two German code machine
called the Enigma. The word ¡°enigma¡±
means a puzzle or a problem that is difficult to solve.
The German Enigma machine was used by the German military to
pass orders and plans. The United States, Britain, and the government
of Poland were all successful in learning to read information
transmitted by the Enigma. It took thousands of people and cost
millions of dollars to read the Enigma information. However,
the time, effort and money resulted in a quicker end to the
war against Nazi Germany.
The National Cryptologic Museum belongs to the United States
National Security Agency. The agency is usually called the N-S-A.
One of the N-S-A¡¯s many jobs is cryptography for
the United States government. The work of the N-S-A is not open
to the public. However, the National Cryptologic Museum tells
the story of the men and women who work at the N-S-A long after
their work is no longer secret.
Each part of the museum shows the value of this secret, difficult
and demanding work. Visitors say it is really fun to see equipment
and read documents that were once very important and very, very
This program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced
by George Grow. I¡¯m Steve Ember.
And I¡¯m Mary Tillotson. Join us again next week
for EXPLORATIONS, a program in Special English on the Voice
This V-O-A Explorations Report is published
courtesy of VOAnews.com