Last of the ‘Navajo Code Talkers’ has died aged 93

Chester Nez, the last surviving member of the ‘Original Navajo Code Talkers’ has died at the age of 93. He was one of the 29-member Navajo team that created a unique code language out of their own mother tongue. This new unbreakable code helped in defeating Japan on some very crucial fronts.

One of the deadliest combats of the Pacific theatre took place on the small and lonely island of Iwo Jima, also known as Sulphur Island. The Japanese defence of the Island consisted of a fortress that was carved into the volcanic mountains and defended by 22,000 soldiers. The island was seen by the US as a stepping stone to Tokyo, due to its air strips and strategic location. In this battle , the US was about to test its most innovative and secretive weapon, the ‘Navajo Code Talkers’.

Navajo men never thought that they would have to fight for the ‘white man’. This is primarily because of the treatment of the Navajo people by the US authorities. The Navajo believed that the white man was trying to destroy their culture, by killing their language. America had established schools in and around Navajo reservations, where every pupil had to learn and speak English. Navajo tribesmen saw this as an attempt by the white man to destroy their language. They kept their language and culture alive, even after they had been confined to only a few small areas famously known as ‘reservations’.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States realized that the Japanese had to be stopped by any means possible before they set foot on US soil. One of the many challenges that US generals had to face while combating the Japanese was to develop an indecipherable code for communications. Japanese code-breakers were extremely clever and were able to crack any code that US experts would come up with. The US generals then turned to Navajo tribesmen to construct a code out of their language, which could not be deciphered by the Japanese.

The US Army set out to recruit young, bright men from their reservations to help defend the US. People, young and old, were queuing up to take part in the war, not to defend the US, but to defend their ancestors’ land from foreign occupation.

A team of 29 men from the Navajo tribe was chosen and given the task of designing a secret code language which was impossible to crack. The team came up with a brilliant idea, to replace the letters of the alphabet  with words from their own language that described strange and different metaphors. Not just that, but they also had to construct a variety of new and complex expressions for warfare and equipment terminologies. For instance, their name for a bomb was ‘ground boiler’, for a grenade, ‘potato’, and for a plane, a ‘hummingbird’, although these names were given in the Navajo tongue. This plan worked and Japanese could not break the code, the AZ Central reports.

Although the US Marine Corps lost 6000 men while trying to capture the island, had it not been for the efforts and code of the Navajo men, things could have been much worse for the US side.

After the death of Chester Nez, now there are no more survivors from the original code talkers, but their code and the stories of their heroic contribution will remain a part of our history forever.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE