- - Monday, June 9, 2014

Perhaps no one understood better than Chester Nez how the precision of language matters in wartime. Mr. Nez, who died last week in Albuquerque, N.M., was the last remaining of the original Navajos recruited by the Marine Corps to develop a code to puzzle and mystify the Japanese enemy in the South Pacific in World War II.

“The passing of Chester Nez, one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, sadly marks the end of an era in our country’s and Marine Corps‘ history,” said Col. David Lapan, director of the Office of U.S. Marine Corps Communications. “We mourn his passing, but honor and celebrate the indomitable spirit and dedication of those Marines who became known as the Navajo Code Talkers.” After the war, Lt. Gen. Seizo Arisue, the chief of Japanese intelligence, conceded that the Navajo code stumped the men of Nippon, though they had broken the code used by the U.S. Army.

Mr. Nez was recruited in 1942 and assigned with other code talkers to the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, Calif. There they created the code. Their story was told in a movie, “Windtalkers.” By the end of the war in August 1945, more than 300 code talkers were at work puzzling the Japanese. Silence and discretion were crucial; for years after the war, they were forbidden to tell family members or fellow Marines about their work. Everything was declassified in 1968, and in 2001 President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the original code talkers, Mr. Nez among them.

When the code talkers were recruited, the Navajo language had never been written down, and it was ideal for a code language. The language structure baffled everyone but a Navajo. By one estimate, fewer than 30 people outside the tribe understood the language when the bombing of Pearl Harbor put America in the war.

“In developing our code, we were careful to use everyday Navajo words, so that we could memorize and retain the words easily,” Mr. Nez told CNN in 2011.

The code talkers developed an initial glossary of more than 200 terms and an alphabet. The Navajo word for buzzard, “jeeshoo,” for example, was used for “bomber,” and the code word for submarine, “beesh loo,” meant “iron fish.” Some of the code words seem almost transparent in retrospect. The Navajo word for “potato” referred to a hand grenade, “turtle” to a tank. Bombs were “eggs” and the commanding general was “war chief.” But the code seems transparent only in retrospect, and it baffled the Japanese, whose understanding of English was rudimentary in 1942.

Mr. Nez shipped out to Guadalcanal late that year, and like the others, worked with a partner. They were trained in radio communications, and each radio transmission read aloud by a code talker was destroyed immediately.

“When bombs dropped, generally we code talkers couldn’t just curl up in a shelter,” Mr. Nez wrote in his book “Code Talkers,” published in 2001. “We were almost always needed to transmit information, to ask for supplies and ammunition, and to communicate strategies. And after each transmission, to avoid Japanese fire, we had to move.”