Navajo Code: Powerful As Any Weapon In WWII?

During World War II, the U.S. military enlisted Navajo Indians who used their native language to devise a clandestine, unbreakable code. Host Michel Martin speaks to Chester Nez, the last of the original Navajo 'code talkers,' and Judith Schiess Avila, co-author of Nez' autobiography.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Girl Scouts have a new leader and she wants to let you know the organization is about more than cookies. Anna Maria Chavez tells us about her plans to continue the legacy of fostering leadership skills in girls and to bring more diversity to troops around the nation. That's coming up.

But first, we want to continue our celebration of Native American Heritage month with a closer look at the legendary Navajo Code Talkers. During World War II, the U.S. military sought to devise a code that enemy forces could not decipher. They enlisted the services of members of the Navajo Nation, who used a code based on their native language to transmit messages in the Pacific Theater. These Code Talkers could relay messages in seconds that would sometimes take coding machines half an hour. The code was never broken.

In 2001, then President George W. Bush awarded Congressional Gold Medals to five surviving members of that group. Chester Nez is the last surviving Code Talker. He is 90 years old and he's slightly hard of hearing. He is with us now, along with Judith Schiess Avila. She is a scholar who studied the Navajo code and she's the co-author of Chester Nez's autobiography, "Code Talker."

Welcome to you both.

CHESTER NEZ: Thank you very much.

JUDITH SCHIESS AVILA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Mr. Chester, thank you for your service. Do you remember getting the gold medal?

NEZ: That was very interesting when we received our medals and I've been thinking about this, when I can hug my gold medal.

MARTIN: I would imagine. I would be wondering where you going to keep it. And, Mr. Chester, was it hard to keep the secret for so long?

NEZ: It's been very difficult to try not to tell our own people how we went through World War II using our native language and it's been a long time (unintelligible) broke the code down. And I'm very happy nobody ever tried to translate the code, how it was used and everything like that. I'm so happy about that.

MARTIN: Miss Judith, how were he and the other Code Talkers recruited?

AVILA: Marine recruiters came to their high school in Tuba City, Arizona and they told the young men that they had a special assignment for young Navajo men who were proficient in both English and Navajo. And the young men had been raised as warriors, to love their country, their land, their people and they knew that they would help to protect their country, land and people, even though their people were not allowed to vote yet in Arizona or New Mexico. The vote was not given to Native Americans there until 1948.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask about that. As I understand it, from the book and also from other reporting, the Navajo people were not permitted to vote in elections until the late '40s, as you said. And Navajo people were discouraged from using their native language at the schools that they attended, particularly the boarding schools.

So why do you think that Mr. Chester was willing to go?

AVILA: He's someone who does what has to be done and he really holds no rancor about the way his people have been treated. He knows that he behaves in the way he sees as moral and right and that's what matters to him.

MARTIN: Mr. Chester, when you were growing up, as I understand, both from your book and from other books that I have read, that the children at boarding school were often punished for speaking their language. So was it confusing to you when the recruiters came and they wanted you to use your language?

NEZ: That's very true. I used to try to speak my own native language when I don't see anybody that has something to do with the school. And it was very difficult when we tried not to speak our own language and that's what we used during World War II and I've got to say this is one of the most visible things that ever happened to my language and I'm very proud of that.

MARTIN: What about these last few years? As we were talking about, you could not talk about your service for 20 years because it was still secret.

NEZ: It was one of the most difficult things. Even my parents asked me a lot of different kinds of questions about what we did, but as we left the Marine Corps, they told us not to talk about it, how we did this and how we did that. So I kept it to myself and did not talk about what we went through and how we used the code.

MARTIN: Is it pleasant now to talk about it? Are you enjoying the opportunity to share what you did?

NEZ: I'm very happy about this. It finally came through and - told us that we can talk all we want about what we did and...

MARTIN: Miss Judith, what do you think it means to have this piece of history now available to discuss?

AVILA: The thing Chester always says to me when we hear from Penguin and how well the book is doing - he always says, good. More people are going to know how my Navajo Nation helped their country. And I do think it's crucial that the country be aware that minority groups who hang onto their culture can be of such a huge help to us.

MARTIN: Well, also, from what I understand, the use of the Navajo Code, even though the code was not strictly Navajo, per se, it was a code based on the Navajo, that it did help in a way to preserve the Navajo language. Is that your understanding, as well?

AVILA: I think that is true because the kids are no longer discouraged from speaking Navajo when they go to school. As a matter of fact, Chester's great-grandson took Navajo in summer school last summer. It's something that is now encouraged and cherished and I think that's a wonderful thing.

MARTIN: And, Judith, I know that Mr. Chester is too modest to talk about himself, so I'm going to ask you, if you don't mind to talk about him. What is it that makes him special?

AVILA: What made him special was that he joined the Marines voluntarily. He sailed through basic training because life at the reservation had been quite physically difficult and then he helped to develop this wonderful code and never complained when he and the other Code Talkers were told when other groups of Marines went for R and R that they hadn't been released to go. They could not go; they were needed. And so Chester never got R and R through his entire wartime experience and that was tough. But when you talk to him, he'll say, my country needed me and I'm glad that I could help.

MARTIN: Mr. Chester, I want to thank you once again for speaking with us today and I want to thank you once again for your service. What message would you like people to draw from your story?

NEZ: I think there was something that was very important to us and also the people of the United States that the Navajos were chosen to speak their own language and I think it's a wonderful thing to remember those, where we've been and how we came out and everything. It's one of the most terrible places that I have been, hitting the beach and see some of your friends lying around the cove dying out, and I think that's something that I'll never forget.

But I was very lucky and very, very, very proud to be one of the Navajo Code Talkers.

MARTIN: Chester Nez is the last surviving original Navajo Code Talker. His autobiography titled "Code Talker" was just released last month. Judith Schiess Avila is the co-author of "Code Talker." They were both kind enough to join us from member station KANW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us. Thank you for sharing the book with us and your story. And, Mr. Nez, thank you once again for your service.

NEZ: Thank you.

AVILA: Thank you.

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