Only one veteran Navajo code talker remains of the original 29 Navajo Marines who used their native language to devise an unbreakable code during World War II.
Growing up in New Mexico, Chester Nez and many of his fellow Navajo were punished for speaking their language. In the 1920s, Nez attended one of many government run boarding schools that attempted to erase Indian culture and language.
"I often think about the things I went through, all the hardships," Nez said. He was being interviewed at the studios of KUNM in Albuquerque for Veterans Day.
Years later, Nez was shocked to learn he’d been recruited by the Marines, specifically to devise a code using the same language the government tried to beat out of him. Judith Avila helped Nez write his memoir Code Talker, which was just published.
"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.
During World War II, the Japanese had cracked code after code the U.S. military used to hide their communications. Then, a Marine by the name of Philip Johnston, 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. 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.”
Photo courtesy Judith Avila.
Then they 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.
"And the Japanese tried everything in their power to try to decipher our code, but they never succeeded," Nez said.
He and his fellow code talkers were faced with many cultural challenges during the war. The most difficult was dealing with so much death.
The Navajo believe when you encounter a dead body that person’s spirit stays with you. Coming home after the war, Nez remembered being haunted by these spirits.
"They were all around me. I actually see them alongside my bed," Nez said. "This was one of the bad omen."
His family performed a ceremony called the “enemy way” to cleanse him. After that, Nez said, he felt free of the ghosts.
The code talker program was secret. When Nez and the others arrived home in 1945, there was no fanfare. The code remained active for years after the war; it wasn’t declassified until 1968. Still, it took decades before the men were officially recognized.
In 2000, New Mexico Senator 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," President Bush told a televised crowd at the Capital Rotunda.
Only five of the original 29 were still alive.
Chester Nez stood tall, puffed out his chest and saluted the president, while the crowd - many relatives of code talker families - gave the group a standing ovation.
"This gold medal is something I will treasure for as long as I live," said Nez, now 90-years-old.
The last original code talker lives in Albuquerque with his son. The father of six children, he has nine grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
Today with so many people leaving the reservation, Navajo elders like Nez fear their language is dying. Nez hopes Navajo children learn the story of the code talkers, so they understand just how critical it is to learn and use their own language.