WASHINGTON -- The 29 U.S. Marines dodged bullets at the front -- first in the Pacific and then in Germany -- passing top-secret messages to each other in a code that the enemy couldn’t crack.
The warriors, Navajo Code Talkers, relied on their their native language to develop the code, which helped to turn the course of World War II in the favor of the Allies. Of the original group, only one is still alive: Chester Nez.
On Nov. 9, the American Veterans Center honored Nez and six other veterans for bravery and valor above and beyond the call of duty during combat. Nez received the Audie Murphy Award for distinguished service in the military during World War II.
“I was very proud to say that the Japanese did everything in their power to break that code but they never did,” Nez said in an interview with Stars and Stripes the day before the award ceremony.
If the Code Talkers had been caught, he said, they would be tortured and their tongues cut out. They risked everything for the United States, even though they were raised in military boarding schools that prohibited them from speaking their native language.
Nez was raised at a time when the government required every Native American to have a census number and be accounted for. His grandson, Latham, described it as a “bad time” for Native Americans. Part of the effort involved taking children off reservations and putting them into boarding schools. Once there, children were forbidden to speak Navajo and were beaten or had their mouths washed out with soap if they were caught.
That didn’t stop them from whispering Navajo to each other in secret, said Latham Nez, who travels with his grandfather helping him tell his story. Their language, however, would serve the United States well later, in 1942, when Americans were dying in rising numbers overseas, especially in the Pacific. The Japanese seemed to know what the U.S. military was planning well before it took place.
That’s where the Code Talkers came in, recruited from boarding schools to join the Marines and use their unique skills to develop an unbreakable code to pass messages.
“Even some of our town tribe wouldn’t understand what we were talking about,” Nez said in the interview.
World War I veteran Philip Johnston, who came up with the idea to develop the Navajo Code in 1941, came to Nez’ boarding school to recruit. The volunteers went directly into basic training without any goodbyes. Nez left behind his sister Dora, his father and his beloved grandmother, who wouldn’t know he was fighting until two years after he left.
When the Code Talkers got out of the service, “they told us not to talk about what we did,” Nez said.
The Navajo men received no fanfare, and many struggled, said Judith Avila, who co-wrote Nez’s memoir “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Talkers of WWII” and helped Nez during the Nov. 8 interview.
Instead of people thanking them for their service, they faced discrimination and insults, she said. When Nez wore his Marine Corps uniform to register for his Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood -- required for all Native Americans -- the clerk told Nez he wasn’t a real citizen.
“I wish I had my .45 with me,” Nez recalled saying at the time, according to Avila, “because if I did, I would shoot you in the face.”
Without support, suffering from what most now know to be post-traumatic stress, many Code Talkers turned to alcohol and lived on the streets. There were about 420 Code Talkers that followed the original 29 into service. Of that group, about 30 are still alive.
Nez said he was one of the lucky ones. When he returned, he was embraced by his family. He got a job at the VA, which he kept until the 1970s.
Nez still has good memories of his time with the Marines, whom he said treated the Code Talkers very well. Latham Nez, who accompanied his grandfather to the awards, said the Marines saw the Navajo men as “damn good Marines” who were already warriors when they left for basic training.
A modest man, Nez doesn’t talk a lot. His grandson said that he was raised not to discuss his life, which made the book very special. It’s also what makes the Audie Murphy award so fantastic.
“His normal response was a big smile, and saying, ‘Good, good.’ I know deep down it’s the story that’s important (to him),” Latham Nez said.
Excerpts from the Navajo code
|English Word||Navajo Word||Meaning|
|Dive Bomber||Gini||Chicken Hawk|
|Fighter plane||Da-he-tih-hi||Humming Bird|
|English Letter||Navajo Word||Meaning|
— National Archives