Obit of the Day: Last of the Original Navajo Code Talkers
In May 1942, the United States Marines inducted 29 Navajo into the 382nd platoon - the first all-Native American platoon in U.S. history. Chester Nez was one of those men, although to call him a man is a stretch. Mr. Nez was only a sophomore in high school when he joined the Marines becoming one of the first “code talkers.”
Like other Navajo recruited for the top secret project (not declassified until 1968), Mr. Nez did not tell his family he was enlisting and lied about his age. He did not know at the time that he was joining one of the most successful military operations in history.
Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran and son of a missionary who grew up on a Navajo reservation, came up with the idea of creating a code around the tribal language. He convinced the Marine Corps that since only Navajos knew the language it would be nearly impossible to break by the enemy. He was correct.
Mr. Nez and his compatriots were trained in a Navajo-based code which used simple vocabulary from their native tongue to create a code for military purposes. For example the Navajo word for “potato” was code for “grenade,” while “turtle” was decoded as “tank.” Because code talkers also spoke directly to each other, rather than through a codebreaking device (such as Enigma), messages were decoded in 20 seconds. (And they were nearly error-free. During the Battle of Iwo Jima Navajo code talkers transmitted and translated over 800 messages without error.)
Following the war, Mr. Nez remained active in the military and served two years in Korea. When he left the Marines he worked as a painter for the VA while trying to get his college degree from the University of Kansas. He did not graduate because the tuition assistance ran out but he was given a degree in 2012 from the university.
The code talkers were eventually honored by the U.S. government in 2001, when they were awarded the Congressional gold medal, given to those ”who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.”
Mr. Nez’s last public appearance was in April 2014 when he was invited to Quantico, Virginia for the dedication of a Marine Corps building in honor of the code talkers.
With the passing of Mr. Nez, no member of the original Navajo code talkers still lives.
(Image of Chester Nez, undated, is courtesy of In America a series from CNN.com)
Also relevant on Obit of the Day:
Keith Little - One of the original Navajo code talkers
Joe Morris, Sr. - One of the original Navajo code talkers
Wilfred Billey - Part of the second wave of code talkers
Edmund Harjo - Last of the Seminole code talkers