WWII Navaho Code Talker

Chester Nez. 90, is the last of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. All the rest of the U.S. Marines who created the first unbreakable code that baffled the Japanese during World War II have died. Nez has been asked to tell his own story many times. When he tells it in English, he refers to pre-written answers his family keeps on a sheet of notebook paper. The questions are almost always the same. When his memory fails him — at 90, Nez is now an old man — he looks off into the distance. “Ask my son,” he says. But when he speaks in Navajo, in the vivid light of the late afternoon, the colors of his memories are saturated, the edges sharp. He remembers the words that helped slay the enemy even as they pierced his own sacred beliefs. He remembers the words that helped protect him on the fields of battle. And he remembers a full life. There is so much more to remember about Iiná, life.Summers spent chasing after lambs and goats among the high desert scrub southwest of Gallup, N.M. The school on the Navajo Reservation. A Marine Corps recruiter in a crisp uniform. A bus trip to California. The room at Camp Elliott where Nez would help devise the simple code. A war to fight in a faraway land. A home to return to. Demons to bury. A family. A career. A medal.

“Chéch’iltah déé’ naashá. I’m from Chi Chil Tah, among the oaks, in Jones Ranch, N.M,” he introduces himself in Navajo. “I belong to my mother’s matriarchal clan Black Sheep, and I’m born for my father’s clan, the Sleeping Rock people.”

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