15 June 2014

Navajo Code Talkers of WW2

I've just read that Chester Nez was laid to rest earlier this month. May his God and his ancestors welcome him. 

We were in Albuquerque in 2008, early to breakfast in our hotel but not early enough to be first down. A group of men, wearing distinctive red caps and gold-coloured jackets, and sporting an array of silver and turquoise jewellery, were sitting at a table talking in a mixture of English and what I suspected was Diné. Not until I was returning with my tray did I read the lettering embroidered across the backs of their jackets. The Navajo Code Talkers Association from WW2 was having a reunion.

As they readied to leave, we went across to say hello. It was a short meeting, friendly, they wanting to know where we were from, where we were going, offering suggestions of what we should see on our travels. We returned to that hotel the next year, and the next, and the next, always in the same month, meeting them again and again. We became their joke “They’re following us!” while our smiles hid the knowledge that the number round their table was dwindling.

The last time we also met them by chance outside a bookstore in Albuquerque’s Old Town. “You are following us!” Although other books have been written about the exploits of the Code Talkers, It Had To Be Done was produced by themselves from their own interviews to help fund their Association. 

Some of it makes grim reading, and not for the most obvious reasons. Chester Nez tells of being in a government boarding school about the age of ten, of being beaten for speaking his native tongue when he hardly understood a word of ‘Anglo’. Yet in 1942 that same government, in the guise of the Marine Corps, drew together 29 Navajo men, including Chester Nez, and locked them in a room. Their instruction was to create a verbal code for use in radio transmissions based on that same despised language. 

The rest is bound into the history of Guadalcanal, Iwa Jima, Guam, Peleliu and others too many to mention. Their code was never broken, and was even used in Korea and Vietnam – by Navajo, who were the only ones who could use it.

The Navajo Code Talkers Association  

A movie based on the exploits of the Navajo Code Talkers was made in 2002 entitled Windtalkers.  

With the code’s success, other Native American languages were utilized by the US forces, including that of the Commanche in the D-Day Landings.

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