“Code Talker” by Chester Nez

With Judith Schiess Avila

Around 2017, I was working on field surveys for a water pipeline to serve the Navajo Nation, running from the La Plata River to Window Rock, Arizona, via Shiprock and Gallup, New Mexico. While we were crossing one property, the owner, a Navajo, came to talk with us. He told us his father (uncle? grandfather?) had been a code talker in World War II.

I had heard of the Navajo (Diné) code talkers before, but knew nothing about their service. This book explained much about it, but even more, it revealed aspects of Navajo culture and history.

When it dawned on me that both my book club selections featured wars this month, I abandoned one (a novel). War is simply not my favorite aspect of history. (I think for some people War=History.) I’m glad I stuck with this one.

Co-author Avila began this project as a biography about Nez. But listening to her interview tapes convinced her this should be a memoir in Nez’s voice. She made the right choice. His story is far more intimate and believable in his words. It is clear that some historical details came from Avila’s additional research, but they do not detract from the overall impression that this is Nez’s first-hand account.

The military’s coding apparatus of the time was too slow and clunky for America to win the Pacific War against the Japanese, who were expert codebreakers. The Marines recruited young men on the reservation who could speak both fluent English and Navajo. Their superiors were impressed with their stamina in basic training. Growing up on the Rez had made them tough.

The original 32 code talkers, including Nez, did not simply communicate messages in their native tongue. They developed a true code, using several different Navajo words to represent each letter of the alphabet, and came up with their own words to represent common military terms. Diné service members, who were not among the coders, heard the transmissions and recognized the language, but could not understand the code.

The book contains the entire, now declassified, code.

The war scenes in the South Pacific were my least favorite part of the book, but were important to understanding the code talkers’ vital role and also their positions on the front lines of battle. It also illustrates their complicated situation among fellow American soldiers who thought they looked Japanese. You may wonder why these Native Americans, with their fraught history of colonization, would take up arms for Uncle Sam. I’ll let Nez explain:

“It might surprise non-Navajos to read this declaration of allegiance. No Navajo, however, would be surprised. We have always felt a deep allegiance to our motherland, our Navajo Nation, and our families. To this allegiance is linked a sincere desire to protect all three.”

More interesting to me was Nez’s life on the Checkerboard—Navajo allotment lands near the reservation—his experiences at home with family in the 1920s and 30s, and in boarding school. His tribal history and cultural practices were covered in depth. Though I knew about The Long Walk to Bosque Redondo in 1864 and the devastation it wrought on the Diné, I knew nothing about The Great Livestock Massacre in the 1930s.

Nez also discusses his life after the war. He returns to school and later settles in Albuquerque, marries, and has children. He lived to see publication of the book, but is gone now. His was a truly remarkable and impressive American life.


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