The last of the Navajo Americans who developed an unbreakable code that helped Allied forces win the Second World War died in New Mexico on Wednesday of kidney failure at the age of 93.
Chester Nez was the last survivor of an original group of 29 Navajos recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps to create a code based on their language that the Japanese could not crack.
His son, Michael Nez, said his father died peacefully in his sleep at their home in Albuquerque.
“He had been battling kidney disease and it seems like the disease won,” Michael Nez told Reuters. “He’s the last of a great era, a great part of history.”
About 400 code talkers would go on to use their unique battlefield cipher to encrypt messages sent from field telephones and radios throughout the Pacific theatre during the war.
It was regarded as secure from Japanese military code breakers because the language was spoken only in the U.S. Southwest and was known by fewer than 30 non-Navajo people.
The Navajos’ skill, speed and accuracy under fire in ferocious battles from the Marshall Islands to Iwo Jima are credited with saving thousands of U.S. servicemen’s lives and helping shorten the war. Their work was celebrated in the 2002 movie Windtalkers.
Of the 250 Navajos who showed up at Fort Defiance, Ariz. – then a U.S. Army base – 29 were selected to join the first all-Native American unit of Marines. They were inducted in May, 1942. Mr. Nez became part of the 382nd Platoon.
He and his fellow recruits, called communications specialists, were taught Morse code, semaphore and “blinker,” a system using lights to send messages between ships. Using Navajo words for red soil, war chief, clan, braided hair, beads, ant and hummingbird, for example, they came up with a glossary of more than 200 terms that later was expanded. CHAY-DA-GAHI, which translates to “turtle,” came to mean a tank, while a GINI, “chicken hawk” in English, became a dive bomber. America was NE-HE-MAH, “our mother.” They also developed an alphabet
Mr. Nez has said he was concerned the code wouldn’t work. At the time, few non-Navajos spoke the language. Even Navajos who did couldn’t understand the code. It proved impenetrable.
The Navajos who were trained in radio communications were walking copies of the code. Each message read aloud by a code talker was immediately destroyed.
The president of the Navajo Nation, Ben Shelly, said he had ordered flags to be flown at half-mast in memory of Mr. Nez.
“It saddens me to hear the last of the original code talkers has died,” Mr. Shelly said. “We are proud of these young men in defending the country they loved using their Navajo language.”
The Marine Corps said in a statement it mourned Mr. Nez’s passing, but honoured and celebrated “the indomitable spirit and dedication” showed by him and his colleagues.
“The incredible bravery, dedicated service and sacrifices of Mr. Nez and his fellow code talkers will forever remain part of the proud legacy of our Corps and will continue to inspire generations of Marines,” the statement added.
Last November, the American Veterans Center honoured Mr. Nez for bravery and valour above and beyond the call of duty, awarding him the Audie Murphy Award for distinguished service.
“I was very proud to say that the Japanese did everything in their power to break that code but they never did,” Mr. Nez said in an interview with the Stars and Stripes newspaper the day before receiving the award.
The code talkers, whose actions were recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001, served in all six Marine divisions and 13 were killed in the Second World War.
Mr. Nez also volunteered to serve two more years during the Korean War. He retired in 1974 after a 25-year career as a painter at the Veterans Administration hospital in Albuquerque. Mr. Shelly said the Navajo Nation is drafting a proclamation in honour of Mr. Nez, which it plans to present, along with the Navajo Nation flag, to his relatives.
Mr. Nez threw the opening pitch at a 2004 Major League Baseball game. In 2012, he received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas, where he had abandoned his studies in fine arts after tuition assistance he received for his military service ran out.
Despite having both legs partially amputated, confining him to a wheelchair, he loved to travel and tell his story, said Judy Avila, who helped Mr. Nez write his memoirs.
“He always wanted to go, he loved meeting people,” she said. “And with something like kidney failure, it comes really gradually. At the end, he was really tired.”
To submit an I Remember: email@example.com
Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.
Follow us on Twitter: