The last original Navajo Code Talker died Wednesday. Chester Nez was one of the 29 men who used their native language to devise an unbreakable code that helped win World War II.
During World War II the Japanese had cracked code after code the U.S. military devised. Then a Marine, who had been raised on the Navajo Nation by white missionaries, suggested enlisting the help of the Navajo tribe. They became known as the code talkers.
Navajo, or Dine as it’s called, is a spoken language. And few non-Navajos understand its complexities. Chester Nez and his fellow code talkers first developed an alphabet using every day Navajo words to represent letters, like the Navajo word for ant became “A.”
The platoon came up with words for military terms. In Navajo there is no word for bomb. So they called it an egg. A fighter plane was the Navajo word for hummingbird.
“The Japanese tried everything in their power to try to decipher our code but they never succeeded,” Nez said in a 2011 interview.
Nez and his fellow code talkers were faced with many cultural challenges at war. The Navajo believe when you encounter a dead body, that person’s spirit stays with you.
“They were all around me,” Nez said. “I actually see them alongside my bed.”
His family performed a ceremony called the “enemy way” to cleanse him.
When Nez and the others had arrived home in 1945 there was no fanfare because the code talker program was a secret. It was so successful the military continued to use the code until 1968.
Finally in 2000, then-New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman introduced legislation to honor the code talkers. The following year — nearly six decades after the code was written — President George W. Bush awarded them Congressional Gold Medals.
“Today we give these exceptional marines the recognition they earned so long ago,” Bush said.
Chester Nez stood tall, puffed out his chest and saluted the president, while the crowd — including many code talker families — gave a standing ovation.
Growing up in New Mexico, Nez and many of his fellow Navajos were punished for speaking their language. Judith Avila helped Nez write his memoir titled "Code Talker."
In the 1920s she says Nez attended one of many government-run boarding schools that tried to erase Indian culture and language.
“And it was extremely ironic one of the very things they were forbidden to do — speak Navajo — ended up helping save us during the war,” Avila said.
Being asked asked to devise a code using the same language the government had tried to wipe out came as a shock to Nez.
“I often think about the things that I went through all the hardships and everything like that,” Nez said.
Today with so many people leaving the reservation, many fear their language is dying. Nez hoped Navajo children would learn the story of the code talkers, so they would understand just how critical it is to speak their own language.
Chester Nez was the father of six children. He died Wednesday at the age of 93.