Original Navajo Code Talker still tells his story

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. | Tourists hurry inside a shop here to buy books about the famed Navajo Code Talkers, warriors who used their native language as their primary weapon.

Outside, on a walk sheltered from the sun, nine of the Code Talkers sit at a table autographing the books. Each is an old man now. They wear similar caps and shirts, the scarlet and gold of the Marine Corps, and turquoise jewelry.

One of the men, who signs his name as Cpl. Chester Nez, is distinguished from the others. Below his signature, he jots down why: 1st Original 29.

Before hundreds of Code Talkers were recruited from the Navajo Nation to join the elite unit, 29 Navajos were recruited to develop the code — based on the then-unwritten Navajo language — that would confound Japanese military cryptologists and help win World War II.

Of the Original 29, just three survive. Cpl. Nez is one.

The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific, sending thousands of messages without error on Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics and other communications critical to the war’s ultimate outcome.

“It’s one of the greatest parts of history that we used our own native language during World War II,” Cpl. Nez said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We’re very proud of it.”

Cpl. Nez tells the story succinctly. He is the last of the original group able to do so. One can hardly speak or hear, and the memory of the third is severely tested by Alzheimer’s disease.

Cpl. Nez, 89, is limited, too. He is in a wheelchair after diabetes led to the amputation of both legs. These days, he’d rather “just sit around, take it easy,” he said.

As a boy, Cpl. Nez lived in a traditional Navajo home and helped his family tend sheep in Two Wells on the eastern side of the vast 27,000 square-mile reservation.

He played with Matchbox toy cars, went barefoot and spoke only his native language. That changed when he was sent to one of the boarding schools set up by the federal government to assimilate American Indian children into the broader culture.

At boarding school, Cpl. Nez said he had his mouth washed out with soap for speaking Navajo.

He was in 10th grade when a Marine recruiter came looking for young Navajos who were fluent in Navajo and English to serve in World War II. He jumped at the chance to defend his country — and to leave boarding school. He kept the decision to enlist a secret from his family and lied about his age, as did many others.

“I told my roommate, ‘Let’s try it out,’ and that’s what we did,” Cpl. Nez said. “One reason we joined is the uniform — they were so pretty, dress uniforms.”

About 250 Navajos showed up at Fort Defiance, Ariz., then a U.S. Army base, but only 29 were selected to join the first all-American Indian unit of Marines. They were inducted in May 1942.

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