In Navajo tradition, when someone dies, it is said that he or she has "walked on." Wednesday, Chester Nez, last of the famed Navajo code talkers, walked on. He had turned 93 in January and was living in Albuquerque. He was 21 when he joined the Marines in World War II. He had been specially recruited.
Felicia Fonseca writes:
Of the 250 Navajos who showed up at Fort Defiance—then a U.S. Army base—29 were selected to join the first all-Native American unit of Marines. They were inducted in May 1942. Nez became part of the 382nd Platoon.Navajo Code Talkers were on the ground with their fellow Marines in every major action in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They proved their value at Guadalcanal, at Tarawa and at the 36-day siege on Iwo Jima. After that immensely bloody battle, Major Howard Connor, a 5th Marine Division signal officer, said: "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."
Using Navajo words for red soil, war chief, clan, braided hair, beads, ant and hummingbird, for example, they came up with a glossary of more than 200 terms that later was expanded and an alphabet.
Nez has said he was concerned the code wouldn't work. At the time, few non-Navajos spoke the language. Even Navajos who did couldn't understand the code. It proved impenetrable.
Nez wrote two memoirs, the first of his time in the Marines, Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII and a second The Life and Times of the Code Talker. The latter covers his growing up in the New Mexico part of the Navajo Nation and the years after World War II, with ample attention to his culture and traditions.
Altogether, before war's end, 421 Navajo warriors enlisted in the Marines and learned how to give Japanese intelligence headaches. Without them, their commanders and other officers have said, American casualties in battles for Japanese-held islands would have been far more ghastly than they were.
The 29 original recruits and all the other Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy in case the code had to be used after the war ended. It was, in Korea and Vietnam.
It was not until 1968 that the code and the story of its crucial role were declassified, freeing those who invented and used it to tell their experiences. Since then, more than 500 books have been written, several documentaries have been produced, Hollywood made a version called Windtalkers, a film that spends more of its time following Nick Cage around than it does Adam Beach (a Saulteaux Indian), who for his role spent six months learning Diné, the Navajo language. Famed sculptor Oreland Joe (Navajo-Ute) created the Navajo Code Talker Memorial at the Navajo Tribal Park & Veterans Memorial at Window Rock, Arizona.
Yet, although President Ronald Reagan declared Aug. 14, 1982, National Navajo Code Talkers Day, it wasn't until Dec. 21, 2000, 56 years after they first saw action, that the five surviving original Code Talkers and relatives of the other 24 received Congressional Gold Medals for their innovativeness and heroism. The other Code Talkers were awarded Congressional Silver Medals. The belated awards contained a deep irony. Many of these men who had saved untold numbers of American lives by using their Native language had been punished for speaking that same language when they were children forced to attend boarding schools where the goal was to take the Indian out of them.
It may come as a surprise to many who are acquainted with the story of the Code Talkers that the Navajos weren't the only Indians used for code work. And they weren't the first. The Army used eight Choctaw speakers to confuse German troops in 1918. In the the next war, the Army in both the Pacific and Europe used Lakota speakers, Oneidas, Chippewas, Pimas, Hopis, Choctaws, Sac and Fox and Comanches. But those Indians simply talked to each other in their Native language. The first 29 Navajo Code Talkers developed a real code. They could not even be understood by other speakers of Navajo.
The Marines had never before used Indians for this purpose. But Philip Johnston, a white man who had grown up on the lands of the Navajo Nation, approached the Corps in mid-February 1942 with an idea. Why not use Navajos and members of other large tribes for military communications? Show us, the Marines said. So Johnston brought four Navajos with him to Camp Elliott, California, for a demonstration. They were given some military messages. They substituted some Navajo words and then, in pairs, went into separate rooms and communicated by radio. Gen. Clayton Vogel witnessed the success: The decoded messages were accurate renditions of their English originals. He recommended to his superiors that 200 Navajos be recruited.
It took some high-level meetings before a decision was made. But, in April, a pilot program was initiated and in May, 29 of the 30 Navajos recruited showed up at Camp Pendleton near Oceanside, California, for seven weeks of basic training. They came from places named Chinle, Kayenta, Blue Canyon and Kaibeto. Many had never before been off the reservation.
Initially, the Navajo code comprised about 200 assigned words, but by the end of the war, there were 800. Here is a sample from the glossary:
Dive Bomber — Gini — Sparrow Hawk
Torpedo Plane — Tas-chizzie — Swallow
Observation Plane — ine-ahs-jah — Owl
Fighter Plane — Da-he-tih-hi — Hummingbird
Bomber Plane — Jav-sho — Buzzard
Patrol Plane — Ga- gih — Crow
Transport Plane — Astah — Eagle
The code was more complicated than mere word substitutions. The fear was that some sharp Japanese linguist might catch on to that soon enough. So words also could be spelled out using Navajo words representing individual letters of the alphabet. The Navajo words "wol-la-chee" (ant), "be-la-sana" (apple) and "tse-nill" (axe) all stood for the letter "a." To say "Navy" in Navajo Code, they could say "tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)." Thus, using assigned words or the alphabet code, they could encrypt anything.
Window Rock, Ariz., Aug. 14, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Morris Bitsie)
Their participation went unsung for decades because of the secrecy. The world they returned to was not unlike the one they left. Federal policies which had improved somewhat during the New Deal era again focused on assimilation and terminating reservations. Many returning veterans were denied the right to vote even though they had supposedly been made full citizens by the Snyder Act in 1924.
With all these original Code Talkers gone, and few of the other 391 remaining, the National Navajo Code Talkers Museum & Veterans Center project takes on more importance:
The museum is dedicated to the overarching purpose of providing historical clarity, accuracy and context in preserving the extraordinary contribution of the Navajo Code Talkers for future generations. Their story will be told in compelling detail through an immersive learning environment, powerful interactive exhibits and activities, living demonstrations of the Navajo code and culture in the larger perspective of modern history. The museum and integrated education programs will serve as the national repository for the once-secret military voice code and the legendary skill, endurance, courage and ingenuity of the Navajo Code Talkers.The project also will include a veterans center for all Armed Forces veterans and active-duty personnel.
Donations to support the project can be made through the website: www.navajocodetalkers.org or by contacting Wynette Arviso at 505-870-9167 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Code Talker Emblem
The Code Talker emblem is also pictured on the reverse side of the Congressional Gold and Silver Medals.