RIP Chester Nez-last of the original 29 Code Talkers

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Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Jun 5, 2014 - 02:33pm PT
Chester Nez, last of WWII's original Navajo code talkers, dies at 93
By Elaine Woo

Chester Nez stands outside his son's home in Albuquerque in 2001, the ...
Chester Nez stands outside his son's home in Albuquerque in 2001, the year he received the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' highest civilian honor, from President George W. Bush.
Credit: Jake Schoellkopf / For The Times


June 4, 2014, 9:02 PM



If Chester Nez dared to use his Navajo language in school, punishment was swift and literally distasteful. He had to scrub his tongue with a toothbrush and wash out his mouth with bitter soap..

So he was intrigued when recruiters from the U.S. Marines showed up in 1942 seeking young men like him who knew both English and Navajo.

That day, four months after Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Nez helped form an elite, top-secret group that became known as the Navajo code talkers. Using the Navajo language, they developed an unbreakable military communications code, then risked their lives on battlefields across the Pacific to send and decipher messages critical to America and its allies in World War II.

He didn't have to volunteer; barred from voting, Native Americans were barely considered citizens. But Nez's heritage spoke louder than decades of rejection. "I reminded myself that my Navajo people had always been warriors, protectors," he wrote years later. "In that there was honor. I would concentrate on being a warrior, on protecting my homeland."

Nez, the last of the original 29 code talkers, died Wednesday in Albuquerque. He was 93 and had kidney failure, said Judith Avila, who helped Nez write his 2011 memoir, "Code Talker."

Chester Nez poses in Tuba City, Ariz., in 1945. Nez, who died Wednesda...
Chester Nez poses in Tuba City, Ariz., in 1945. Nez, who died Wednesday, was the last of the original Navajo code talkers, who gave Allied forces a system for communicating that the Japanese were never able to crack.

In 2001 he received the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' highest civilian honor, from President George W. Bush.

One of five children, Nez was born Jan. 23, 1921, in Two Wells, N.M. His mother died when he was about 3. When he was about 9, his struggling father packed him off to government boarding schools to learn English and other skills that might help him succeed among whites.

The Marines showed up at his high school in Tuba City, Ariz., in the spring of 1942. The recruiters did not say why they needed Navajos, but the promise of adventure appealed to a teenager whose future otherwise seemed to offer little more than growing corn and beans or tending sheep.

"The Navajo feeling is to go to the top of the hill and see what's on the other side," he told The Times in 2001.

He left immediately for basic training at Camp Pendleton. After boot camp, he and the other 28 Navajos chosen for the project were sent to Camp Elliott in San Diego. It was there that they learned the daunting nature of their assignment.

The Japanese had already broken every code used by the Allies, so when Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran who had grown up on a Navajo reservation, proposed using the Navajo language as the basis for a new code, the top brass thought it was worth a try.

In many respects, Navajo was perfect for the task: It had no written form, used complicated syntax and had unusual tonal features that added another layer of difficulty.

For 13 weeks Nez and his fellow recruits were confined to a room at the base where they were instructed to come up with words to represent the letters A to Z as well as a code for military terms. At first "everybody thought we'd never make it," Nez recalled. "It seemed impossible because even among ourselves, we didn't agree on all the right Navajo words."
But the code finally emerged.

"Wol-la-chee," the Navajo word for "ant," represented A, "na-hash-chid", the word for "badger," was B, "moasi," the word for "cat," was C, and so on. For key military words, they relied on easy-to-remember images. So "a-ye-shi," the word for "eggs," for example, meant "bombs." "Ni-ma-si," or "potatoes," signified "grenades."

Once they agreed on the code, they began to practice it, demonstrating speed and accuracy. Messages that had taken 30 minutes to code and decrypt using other systems were translated and deciphered in 20 seconds by the Navajo code talkers.

The first message Nez transmitted was at Guadalcanal in November 1942: "Enemy machine gun nest on your right. Destroy." The Allied forces blasted the target.

After Guadalcanal, Nez never stopped moving, encrypting, relaying and deciphering messages about enemy positions, Allied strategy, casualties and supplies at the Battle of Bougainville in New Guinea in November 1943, Guam in July 1944 and Peleliu and Angaur in September 1944. The code talkers were so vital to the war effort that they were not permitted leaves.

"We were almost always needed to transmit information, to ask for supplies and ammunition and to communicate strategies," Nez wrote in his memoir. "And after each transmission, to avoid Japanese fire, we had to move."

Ultimately 400 Navajos served as code talkers. They were crucial to the campaign on Iwo Jima, conveying and decoding 800 messages without error in the first 48 hours of the operation. "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima," according to a memo by Maj. Howard Conner, a 5th Marine Division signal officer.

Nez avoided serious injury but was once threatened at gunpoint by a fellow GI who thought he was a Japanese soldier.

He remained in the Marines through the Korean War. But civilian life proved difficult at times. The code talkers were forbidden to talk about their activities for more than two decades, until their mission was declassified in 1968. Nez avoided veterans parades and had nightmares about Japanese soldiers and the carnage he witnessed.

For many of his fellow code talkers, the secrecy order made it hard to get a job; they couldn't tell employers what they had done during the war.

"Chester was one of the lucky ones," Avila said in an interview Wednesday. "He got an interview at the VA hospital in Albuquerque and was hired to be a maintenance guy. He was a painter. Sometimes he painted lovely things," including murals depicting Navajo culture. He retired in 1974.

He is survived by sons Michael and Tyah, nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

"I worried every day that I might make an error that cost American lives," Nez told CNN a few years ago. "But our code was the only code in modern warfare that was never broken. The Japanese tried, but they couldn't decipher it. Not even another Navajo could decipher it if he wasn't a code talker."

elaine.woo@latimes.com
Copyright 2014, Los Angeles Times


_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima," according to a memo by Maj. Howard Conner, a 5th Marine Division signal officer.
skcreidc

Social climber
SD, CA
Jun 5, 2014 - 02:41pm PT
Another amazing piece of history, certianly one with lots of irony.


Edit: The reason I say ironic is that the Navajo of his generation were discouraged from learning their native tongue.
Fat Dad

Trad climber
Los Angeles, CA
Jun 5, 2014 - 02:41pm PT
Rad post (though OT) and much appreciated. Anyone heading passing by Monument Valley should stop at the Burger King in Kayenta (AZ). They have a terrific display dedicated to the WWII code talkers. I just went in for breakfast en route to some ice climbing in Ouray and was pleasantly surprised.
TomCochrane

Trad climber
Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay
Jun 5, 2014 - 02:53pm PT
a fine reminder as to why secure communication encryption is critical to maintaining freedoms
Jan

Mountain climber
Colorado, Nepal & Okinawa
Jun 5, 2014 - 03:26pm PT
Navaho are still volunteering for the military.

A few years ago at a University of Maryland graduation in Okinawa, one of the graduating seniors marched across the stage in the traditional cap and gown with long deerskin boots and leggings on underneath and long turquoise earrings. Her father, mother, and aunt came to the graduate's reception all dressed in Navaho clothes with tons of beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry.
Jon Beck

Trad climber
Oceanside
Jun 5, 2014 - 03:41pm PT
RIP Chester

My sons great grandfather was a code talker, Wilson Begay.he passed away a long time ago. His wife lived to well past ninty, I saw her chop firewood on her ranch past the age of 80. She never learned to speak English. She also served the country as a nurse during the war. In spite of witnessing decades of abuse, up until the 1970s, she was not the least bit bitter. An amazing lady

Native Americans have a long history of military service. The first American woman killed in combat was a Hopi from Tuba City.

Wilson named one of his sons McKelly as a way to honor an Irish buddy from the war.
Jan

Mountain climber
Colorado, Nepal & Okinawa
Jun 5, 2014 - 04:13pm PT
First Native American woman killed in action.
First Native American woman killed in action.
Credit: Jan


Specialist Lori Ann Piestewa (December 14, 1979 March 23, 2003) was a U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps soldier killed during the same Iraqi Army attack in which fellow soldiers Shoshana Johnson and Jessica Lynch sustained injuries. A member of the Hopi tribe, Piestewa was the first Native American woman in history to die in combat while serving with the U.S. military and the first woman in the U.S. armed forces killed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Arizona's Piestewa Peak is named in her honor.
moosedrool

climber
lost, far away from Poland
Jun 5, 2014 - 04:38pm PT
Thank you, Reilly.

In Poland every kid wanted to be an Indian. Losers were the cowboys.

True.

Andrzej
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Jun 5, 2014 - 09:14pm PT
Who wants to die with their boots on?
Ron Anderson

Trad climber
Relic MilkEye and grandpoobah of HBRKRNH
Jun 5, 2014 - 09:16pm PT
RIP.. Although,, the original code talkers were Choctaw WW1..
Jon Beck

Trad climber
Oceanside
Jun 5, 2014 - 09:28pm PT
That is correct Ron, and that is why code talkers were not used in Europe, because Hitler was aware of that form of encryption, In fact Hitler sent a group of anthropologists to the the U.S. prior to WWII to learn Native American languages. They quickly gave up.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jun 5, 2014 - 10:36pm PT
Does anybody know why Navajo was chosen? Did Hopi already have a written mode?
Jan

Mountain climber
Colorado, Nepal & Okinawa
Jun 6, 2014 - 06:30am PT
I would guess that it was because of their greater numbers? And yet they were still a small cohesive group.
Sierra Ledge Rat

Mountain climber
Old and Broken Down in Appalachia
Jun 6, 2014 - 06:39am PT
He was a true hero.

Consider that during his lifetime, Native Americans were being sent to Indian Schools against their will.

At Indian Schools, they we prohibited from speaking their native language, prohibited from practicing their religion, and prohibited from using their own names.

They were given American names and "indoctrinated" in white man's ways.

Yes, this occurred in the USA less than 75 years ago.

And Chester Nez still served in this country's military.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_boarding_schools
Fat Dad

Trad climber
Los Angeles, CA
Jun 6, 2014 - 09:26am PT
Not sure if it was limited to Navajo. I remembering seeing a WWII documentary a while back, and they had a Comanche vet who described using his native language. Perhaps they had more limited programs they used elsewhere? I want to remember that this guy was describing service in Europe, not the Pacific.

Edit: As an afterthought, after reading the effort that both sides employed to get a jump on studying these languages, let alone put them into use, it makes you wonder the resources that governments can muster when they really put their minds and budgets into it. Think of all the ills they could cure if they really tried. It's a pity that those efforts aren't easily transferred to peace time issues.
Jon Beck

Trad climber
Oceanside
Jun 6, 2014 - 11:25am PT
Translation of the Marine Corps Hymn to Navajo
Translation of the Marine Corps Hymn to Navajo
Credit: Jon Beck
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Jun 6, 2014 - 11:32am PT
I saw a news report about Chester Nez that claimed that the code talkers were so important that they had their own bodyguards, but I guess that the reporter hadn't seen Windtalkers or she'd know that they were sort of the opposite of "bodyguards",...
FRUMY

Trad climber
Bishop,CA
Jun 6, 2014 - 01:29pm PT
That movie sucked & had no base in reality. They had body guards. There was no reason to kill them they were real warriors & the command staff knew that.They would not talk no matter what.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Jun 6, 2014 - 02:22pm PT
You are being naive. Capturing the enigma machines with code books gave us an incredible advantage and we knew it. We even allowed attacks to take place when we could not have otherwise explained the readiness in response just to preserve the precious secret that we had broken the code.

The japanese were horribly cruel and saying that the code talker wouldn't break is foolish.
The secret was worth far more than the man.

Hell, the most pivotal point in the war with Japan was Midway, where we were prepared because we had broken the japanese code and knew where "AF" was.
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