Alan Turing is famously remembered for developing the machine used to crack the encrypted messages of the German military during World War II. However, in the Pacific, where fighting against the Japanese army and navy was just as brutal, coded messages sometimes meant the difference between life and death. U.S. military officials, looking to gain the advantage in the battles against Japan, decided to use a language unknown to the Japanese that could be used to transmit highly important messages between soldiers and commanders. Officials decided to try a new approach and selected members of the Navajo tribes. Chester Nez (1921-2014), one of the original Navajo code talkers, presents his autobiography with the help of Judith Schiess Avila.
A native of New Mexico, Nez begins his odyssey when he and fellow Navajo tribe members enlist into the United States Marine Corps. They are told they will have to develop a secret code based of their native tongue. But just how do you develop a code from a language which isn’t written in any shape or form? Navajo is a rare language in that it is taught by word of mouth and not through books. The young code talkers start working and as we see in Chester’s memories, they develop a code that proved to be unbreakable throughout the entire war. The code was so secret, that it wasn’t declassified until 1968. And even today, their story is still largely unknown and many of them remain unsung heroes in the story of World War II.
In 2001, Nez received the Congressional Medal of Honor from then president, George W. Bush. As he explains in the book, it was one of his proudest moments and he proudly served the nation he’s always called home. His courage and patriotism are remarkable considering that in grade school at Fort Defiance, the students were prohibited from using their native Navajo language and were subjected to physical punishment as a result. But when the Marines came calling, Chester and his friends answered the call and in the process would change the course of World War II. His story is an invaluable part of American history as today, Native Americans still struggled with the dark history of the United States which includes acts of extreme violence and prejudice to those of Native American heritage. This book should be required reading by all students and for those who find English to be a second language, his courage and acts of heroism can serve as positive reinforcement for anyone concerned about the acceptance of their heritage among their peers.
In 2002, John Woo directed Nicholas Cage in ‘Windtalkers’, the story of a Marine designated to protect a Navajo code talker. As expected from Hollywood, the effects and actions sequences are visually stunning. But the focus of the film lies in the wrong place and doesn’t come close to telling the whole story of the code talkers. To date, this is the only biography of a code talker and many of them are now deceased. In fact, Chester was the last living code talker until he died on January 4, 2014. He life is an example of those who proudly serve their country even when their country doesn’t serve them. The courage and never-ending efforts to protect the lives of American soldiers shown by the code talkers while risking theirs on the battlefield, make them true American heroes.