- - Wednesday, October 19, 2011


By Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila
Berkley Caliber, $26.95, 310 pages, illustrated

Chester Nez, so christened by missionaries who took him from his family in the Checkerboard Area in New Mexico to attend kindergarten at an English-immersion boarding school, is the last surviving member of the original Navajo code talkers of World War II and the only one to publish a memoir.

This story, as told to Judith Schiess Avila, is not a literary masterpiece, but it is a remarkably affecting first-person account of the Navajo Marines who served their country with distinction through some of the worst battles of the Pacific theater. They were, however, required to remain silent about their contributions to the war effort until 1968, when the U.S. government, having decided it had no further use for the code, began showering long-overdue medals on the men who had created and used it.

U.S. Marine Corp recruiters plucked Chester Nez from his 10th-grade class at a Navajo boarding school in Tuba City, Ariz., because he was fluent in both Navajo and English. He became one of a group of bright young Navajos being assembled to devise a code that the Marines could use to communicate in battle without fear of Japanese interception.

Because the Navajo language is very complicated, handed down orally rather than written, and so difficult to pronounce properly that only speakers who learn it as infants can completely master its tonal intricacies, the code produced by the originally selected group of 29 recruits plus three other Navajo Marines - Mr. Nez insists on treating the group of 32 as a whole - did prove unbreakable in battle. Transmission was incredibly fast, too. In its first trial on Guadalcanal, a radio message that was estimated to take four hours to transmit using the mechanical coding machine called Shackle took a Navajo team just 2 1/2 minutes. The Marines never looked back.

The Navajo teams, Mr. Nez says, “relayed calls for ammunition, food, and medical equipment back to the supply ships waiting offshore. Messages transmitted the locations of enemy troops to U.S. artillerymen. Messages told of something unexpected that had happened in battle. Messages reported on our own troop movements. Messages forwarded casualty numbers, the Navajo code keeping the Japanese from learning of American losses in each foray.” Because the Japanese were experts at targeting the locations from which messages had been sent, the code talkers never stayed on the radio longer than necessary and immediately moved to a new position after transmitting.

Unfortunately for the code talkers, the Navajo code proved so successful that the men who devised and used it couldn’t be spared for rest and recreation with their fellow Marines. Mr. Nez says he never got a real break after his first island duty, beginning in November 1942 in Guadalcanal, through subsequent invasions of Guam, Peleliu, Bougainville and Angaur. By January 1945, shortly before the invasion of Iwo Jima, he learned that he had amassed enough points to be sent home. He spent five months in a hospital recuperating from battle stress, enduring horrifying nightmares.

Readers interested in linguistics will be fascinated by the descriptions here of how the code was created and used. The original 32 code talkers were locked in a room and told to begin by devising Navajo word equivalents for the alphabet. “On that first day, we decided to use an English word - generally an animal, a plant, or an object that was part of our everyday world - to represent each letter of the English alphabet…. We chose Navajo words that could be easily distinguished on the radio, words differing clearly in sound from other selected words. A became ‘red ant,’ not the English word for ant, but the Navajo word, pronounced ‘wol-la-chee.’ “

Later, new code-talker recruits added two more Navajo words to represent most letters. Thus a code talker could transmit the letter “A” using the Navajo word for “ant” or “apple” or “ax,” breaking the pattern of one-letter-one-word and making the code even less likely to be broken. The entire Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary of about 700 words - including military terms, words for various aircraft and ships, and a general vocabulary of Navajo words with literal English translations - appears in the appendix.

The success of the code depended on each radio team’s mastery of transmission, and they practiced incessantly. Eventually, more than 400 Navajo Marines were trained as code talkers.

Running throughout the text are Mr. Nez’s reminiscences of his youth and family, plus descriptions of Navajo traditions, ceremonies and lore. For example, Mr. Nez reports, “Several Navajo men packed up their well-worn combat uniforms and sent them home, where families would use the clothing as personal items in ceremonies designed to keep the men safe.”

He himself would not get a haircut on land during a battle, saying, “It was dangerous enough getting your hair cut during peacetime, when you could be sure that the hair was properly disposed of. … [On shipboard] the cut hair would be burned, disposed of properly, along with the garbage. … It all depended on what your family taught you. And my family had taught me to let it grow until I could get away from the battle site.”

Mr. Nez eventually returned to high school, studied fine arts at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, married, worked at many blue-collar jobs and fathered six children, of whom just two sons survive. Now 90, he has enjoyed basking in well-deserved recognition for the Navajo Marines’ remarkable feats in battle.

Priscilla S. Taylor edited Phi Beta Kappa’s quarterly Key Reporter for 18 years.

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