The death of Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez, one of the original 29 who signed up to create the code that was indecipherable to the Japanese military during World War II, marked the end of an era.
Although prohibited from discussing their secret mission for nearly a quarter of a century, once Nez was allowed to talk about it he expressed pride that the Navajo language he had been forbidden to speak in boarding school (and had his mouth washed out with soap when he did) helped win the war. The only one of the original group to pen a memoir about those experiences, Nez passed on a legacy that will keep their stories alive. It is one of the few accounts out there.
The names of the deceased are piling up, as over the past year more than half a dozen Code Talkers have walked on.
Luckily Nez’s memoir is not the only account out there. Several of these code talkers come back to life in a book by one of their daughters. Drawing on her understanding of the spiritual importance of that language, Navajo poet and English teacher Laura Tohe, daughter of Code Talker Benson Tohe, has compiled an insightful oral history with many stories never previously told.
Nez and his 28 compatriots spent several months developing and memorizing a code glossary of several hundred words from Dine Bizaad—The People’s Language. It is well known that because the Dine language is more oral than written, the intercepted messages were incomprehensible to the skilled Japanese code breakers, and the improvised code proved impenetrable. The code was so successful that it was also used during the Korean War, as well as early in the Vietnam conflict.
“Our language is sacred and represents the part of life that is true,” confided Code Talker Dan Akee from Coal Mine, Arizona, when interviewed at age 87 for the book. “Our language saved a lot of people because it was used to make the code, and history.”
And despite the deaths of so many, they are just a fraction of those who eventually served, from various tribes.
“Of the estimated 432 Navajo Code Talkers, the greatest number coming from Arizona, no one knows how many are still living or where they live,” Tohe wrote in Code Talker Stories (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2012).
To research the book, Tohe established a close rapport with the interviewees as a daughter of one of their comrades who also spoke the language. Because she could do so, the soldiers opened up to her, providing more battlefield details and explaining more about how their lives had been affected and how those experiences had influenced them and their descendants.
“I was taught to know my clans and respect my elders, so I conducted my interviews in Dine bizaad, the native language,” she told ICTMN. “That made a big difference and opened up the storytelling process. They trusted me with their stories because I could help preserve them. So they provided more battlefield details as well as an explanation of how their lives were impacted and how those experiences affected them and their descendants. I treated each of them as I would my own grandfather and paid each with a gift card for gasoline or groceries—because a story is a gift that must be paid for.”
This rapport served her, and the book, well.
“It made a big difference that opened up the storytelling process," she wrote. "As these men told their stories in great detail, it made me realize that even though it had been a lot of years since the war ended, the men who had served this country did not forget the casualties and the cost of war.”
As with armed conflicts since time began, those who fought were left to bear the scars.
“War is Hell,” said Teddy Draper Sr., of Chinle, Arizona, in the book. “It leaves its mark. It scars the soldier who has to confront the ghosts of war on the home front when he returns.”
Tohe interviewed 20 code talkers and recorded this collection of remembrances infused with wisdom and feeling. Though their role in winning the war is legendary, the personal stories really bring it home.
“If the Navajo language had not been used, you would not be sitting here now,” said Teddy Draper Sr., who saw action in the assault on Iwo Jima.
The code itself was simplistic in its complexity.
“An alphabet was developed… A (wolachii) represented by the word ant because it starts with an A. B (shush) was known as bear,” recalled Wilfred Billey of Farmington, New Mexico. “Some words, like aircraft carrier, fighter plane and machine gun had no names, so they were assigned a terminology. Then everything was committed to memory.”
Many Navajo men enlisted to fight, and their reasons were many. Some did it to escape hardship. Some joined simply because they liked the uniforms. But for many, it was duty and patriotism that called.
“The code name for America was ‘Our Mother,’” said Tom Hunter, “and you fight for what you love, for what is yours.”
New Mexico resident Kee Etsicitty of Gallup joined the marines as a teenager and ended up in Guadalcanal and other South Pacific islands.
“The only thing I knew how to do was ride a horse and care for sheep,” Etsicitty recounted. “To a young man growing up in a pastoral life surrounded by the stillness of my desert homeland, the sound of bombs falling was [especially] terrifying.”
Jimmy Begay of Sawmill, Arizona, had not yet celebrated his 17th birthday when he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a radioman after his grandfather gave him a protection blessing.
“If you had a ceremony, it was like a shield around you and a shooter’s bullet wouldn’t go through,” he said.
“These men were willing to share these stories because they want to preserve their legacy,” Tohe told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It’s sad we are losing these men who gave so much and in turn, received very little.”
RELATED: For a photo excerpt, see Heroes Till the End: Code Talkers in Their Golden Years