Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Chester Nez, Last of the original Navajo Code Talkers, Dies at 93

He was the last of his kind, one of the 29 original US Marine Corps "Code Talkers" of the Navajo Nation. As a child, the teachers at his government-run boarding school tried to force him to give up his native tongue, a hellaciously complex mess of tenses and verbs without many adjectives. In WW2, he and his brothers would ironically use that very language to help the United States liberate the Pacific.

Image from Indian Country Today Media Network.

It was in many ways typical of USMC abstract thinking, using a rare language as a way to bypass the then-time consuming process of coding and uncoding battlefield radio transmissions. In 40 seconds a trained Code Talker could send an unreadable message that would otherwise take 40 minutes to encrypt-send-decrypt. While not the first time the US had used an Indian language as a ready-made code (there were instances from WW1), Navajo had the built-in advantages of its inherent complexity and the fact that it had never been committed to paper. The idea was first conceived by Phillip Johnson, son of a missionary to the Navajo whom had lived on a reservation as a child and recognized its potential as a code. The 29 original Code Talkers, including Nez, further added to the complexity by developing a word-substitution code of their own. Fighter planes were "Da-he-ti-hi" ("hummingbirds"), aircraft carriers were "Lo-tso" ("whales"), etc. When the Japanese finally did capture a Navajo marine (a rifleman, not a Code Talker), he could make no sense of the code.

Charles Nez served with distinction throughout the Pacific Theater, beginning in the hell of Guadalcanal and progressing through Bouganville, Guam, Peleliu, and Anguar. Nez and his brothers fought from the front lines, coordinating assaults, calling in timely artillery and air strikes, serving with a level of bravery, valor, and distinction great even by the high standards of the US Marines in the Pacific. They were a vital addition to the war effort, likely saved thousands of American lives and accelerated the course of the terrible war considerably.

They returned home to discrimination and segregation, their brave deeds still classified. Many, including Nez himself, suffered from post-traumatic stress. Many fell into substance abuse (Nez escaped this common pitfall and found solace in traditional Navajo healing ceremonies).

Recognition finally came in 1968 when their deeds were declassified. Soon came honors, fame, eventually even a movie. Nez himself was a long-participating member of the American Legion, telling his and his brothers' stories (your author missed a recent chance to see him at the Marine Corps Museum, a regret I'll have to learn to accept). They ultimately received the Congressional Gold Medal for their efforts in 2002 (shown below; from the US Mint).

Nez passed away on June 4th. 2014, aged 93. For him all the struggles and suffering were ultimately a story of triumph for the Navajo people. Life, for him, had been "100%".

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Comment by Larry on July 13, 2014 at 8:49pm

The passing of a hero.

Comment by Salim Farhat on July 11, 2014 at 8:58pm

The Nicolas Cage movie did not honor them, the Marines NEVER, EVER had a policy of killing their own to prevent capture. These guys contributed greatly to help the free world in its darkest moment.

Comment by Cap'n Tony on June 28, 2014 at 11:47am

You're welcome, Tome, and thanks. As to Nez and his brothers, there is no honor I can give them that even approaches that which they earned for themselves. The Nicholas Cage movie hardly does them justice.

Comment by Tome Wilson on June 27, 2014 at 9:31am

Cap'n, this article was very well written and very informative.  Thank you for honoring Nez and for helping us understand a bit more about WWII.

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