Ever heard of the Navajo code talkers? Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t.
I’ve been on a history kick lately in the books I’ve been reading for my personal amusement (maybe it’s all the historical book reviews I’ve been writing?). I’ve just finished a wonderful book by Navajo code talker Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila, called Code Talker. I’ve always liked the Navajo concept of living in harmony, and I was curious to find out what it was like to be a Navajo code talker.
If you’re not familiar with this fascinating bit of American history, the code talkers were a group of Navajo men recruited by the Marines. During World War II, the Marines had trouble keeping their codes secret from the other side and lost many people in battle. So a bright man, Philip Johnston, suggested that they create a code based on the Navajo language. Johnston knew the Navajo language and culture (his father was a missionary and Johnston had grown up on a reservation) and he figured that the enemy would have a difficult time deciphering the code.
The code talkers developed a two-part code based on the complex Navajo language; in battle, the code would be used to convey messages via radio phones. Each letter of the alphabet had one or more words associated with it, plus there were military terms, country names, aircraft names, ship names, months and other words that would be useful in battle. For example, the word “Australia” was “cha-yes-desi” in Navajo and literally means “rolled hat”. A submarine was “besh-lo” or “iron fish”. It was a complicated language to memorize, and the code talkers constantly practiced with each other to keep their skills sharp.
The Navajo code talkers were definitely an asset to the Marines. Their code and bravery saved hundreds of lives in the South Pacific, and their community spirit, their hard work and their ability to live in the physical discomfort of foxholes enabled them to cope more easily with wartime conditions.
The book is Chester Nez’s personal view of his life: growing up on a desert reservation with few modern conveniences and attending boarding school (one of which was determined to convert Navajos to Christians and punished the kids for using the Navajo language). The book also covers his entrance into the Marines, his battle experiences and his life afterward.
Along the way, Chester Nez provides insights into the Navajo way of looking at the world, their sense of humor and the Navajo language, which is only a spoken language and wasn’t used as a written language, at least at that time. Verbs and tone pronunciations vary, and the language paints pictures. There’s a great example in the book: rather than saying “I am hungry”, it becomes “Hunger is hurting me” in Navajo.
The Marines have not forgotten what the code talkers did for them. This month, they dedicated a building in Quantico, VA to Nez and the other code talkers and Chester Nez was the guest of honor.
For my blog readers who are history buffs or into Native American culture, I recommend the book. It’s a great read.
And for your viewing pleasure, here are two quick videos. One is a brief overview of the code talkers (with excerpts from the 2002 movie, “Windtalkers”, with Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach). The second is a 2013 video with Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila.
UPDATE 6/5/14: Chester Nez passed away yesterday in New Mexico. He was 93. Rest in peace, Mr. Nez, and thank you for making a difference.