Memoir of a Navajo code talker

Navajo code talkers

The original 29 code talkers being sworn in at Ft. Wingate, New Mexico. Chester’s in there somewhere, I’m sure. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.



Filed under Writing

20 responses to “Memoir of a Navajo code talker

  1. I’m pretty sure I saw the movie because I knew about this. It’s really amazing!

  2. travelrat

    Wasn’t there a film about these guys recently?

    • It was the movie “Windtalkers” back in 2002. There are also a few documentaries. One is planned for Chester Nez if they can get the cash together — there’s a Kickstarter campaign going on.

  3. I know one. He was born in the Dakotas, moved to AZ. Amazing guy. He said each one of them had an attached at the hip buddy whose job was to guard them – and if at risk of capture kill them. Too dangerous to let fall into enemy hands. Really brave men. He came back and taught school – using his knowledge of linguistics, and code writing, he authored books and reading programs. Was with SRA, then McGraw-Hill when I met him. Totally unappreciated by the latter. But many, many kids benefitted by his quiet work. I’m still in awe of him.

    • Lucky you! I wish I could meet one of them. It was brave and generous of the Navajo to participate in World War II and other wars.

      • He was a great man. Knowing him changed the way I look at linguistics, learning reading, language acquisition, and how the brain acquires information. He’s probably the reason I left book sales and went into research with that focus when I got the chance. Glad their story finally got some attention

  4. Thank you for this interesting research. I saw the movie and know a little about the code talkers but not that much. 😉 Thanks!

  5. I’m a history geek — and you sold me on this book. It seems like a great picture book idea, too, if someone hasn’t done it already.

  6. This sounds like something I’d like to read. Thanks for the great review!

  7. A wonderful tribute to a fantastic group of men who were vital to the effort in WWII. Thanks for the memories.


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