Chester Nez, Last Of Navajo Code Talkers, Dies At 93

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Chester Nez of Albuquerque, N.M., was among 29 tribal members who developed an unbreakable code that helped win World War II. He was 93 and the last of the original U.S. Marine Code Talkers.


The last original Navajo code talker died yesterday. Chester Nez was one of 29 men who used their native English to devise an unbreakable code for the U.S. military. Here's Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: During World War II, the Japanese had cracked code after code the U.S. military devised. Then, a Marine who had been raised on the Navajo Nation by white missionaries suggested enlisting the help of the Navajo tribe. They became known as the code talkers. Navajo, or Dine, as it's called, is a spoken language, and few non-Navajos understand its complexities. Chester Nez and his fellow code talkers first developed an alphabet, using everyday Navajo words to represent letters - like the Navajo word for ant became A.


CHESTER NEZ: B is shash, bear. C is mosi, cat...

MORALES: This is Nez speaking in a 2011 interview. His platoon came up with words for military terms. In Navajo there is no word for bomb, so they called it an egg. A fighter plane was the Navajo word for hummingbird.

NEZ: And the Japanese tried everything in their power to try to decipher our code, but they never succeeded.

MORALES: Nez and his fellow code talkers were faced with many cultural challenges at war. The Navajo believe when you encounter a dead body, that person's spirit stays with you.

NEZ: They were all around me. I actually see them alongside my bed.

MORALES: His family performed a ceremony to cleanse him. When Nez and the others had arrived home in 1945, there was no fanfare because the code talker program was a secret. It was so successful, the military continued to use the code until 1968. Still, it took six decades after the code was written before President George W. Bush awarded them Congressional Gold Medals.


GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, we give these exceptional Marines the recognition they earned so long ago.

MORALES: Chester Nez stood tall and saluted the president while the crowd gave a standing ovation. Growing up in New Mexico, Nez and many of his fellow Navajos were punished for speaking their language. Judith Avila helped Nez write his memoir, titled, "Code Talker." In the 1920s, she says, Nez attended one of many government-run boarding schools that tried to erase Indian culture and language.


JUDITH AVILA: And it was extremely ironic that one of the very things that they were forbidden to do, speak Navajo, ended up helping to save us during the war.

MORALES: Being asked to devise a code using the same language the government had tried to wipe out came as a shock to Nez.


NEZ: I often think about the things that I went through - all the hardships and everything like that.

MORALES: Today, with so many people leaving the reservation, many feel their language is dying. Nez hoped Navajo children would learn the story of the code talkers, so they would understand just how critical it is to speak their own language. Chester Nez was the father of six children. He died Wednesday, at the age of 93. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales, in Flagstaff.

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