By Julissa Catalan
Chester Nez, who died on Wednesday at age 93, once recalled that as a young student, speaking his native Navajo language resulted in his receiving a beating or having his mouth washed out with “a bitter, brown soap.”
In later years, this very language garnered Nez the 2001 Congressional Gold Medal, which was presented to him by then President George W. Bush.
In 1942, a Marine Corp recruiter visited Nez’s school, specifically scouting bilingual—English and Navajo—male students.
“When joining the Marine Corps, I thought about how my people were mistreated,” Nez was quoted as saying in a 2005 interview. “But then I thought this would be my chance to do something for my country.”
Following his stint at boot camp, Nez and the other Navajo recruits were assigned to develop a new coded language—a plan conceptualized by World War I veteran Philip Johnson, who was fluent in Navajo.
Nez and the original code talkers developed the Navajo-based secret language in just 13 weeks.
Navajo was thought to be the perfect encoder as its tonal and syntax elements were a complete contrast from the English language, yet easy to memorize.
Nez and the coders added a second element—poetic circumlocutions.
The new code sounded nothing like Navajo, yet one needed to be fluent in Navajo in order to understand the concept.
“The Japanese tried, but they couldn’t decipher it,” Nez said in an interview with CNN in 2011. “Not even another Navajo could decipher it if he wasn’t a code talker.”
About 400 Navajos were recruited for battle specifically for their fluency; they made up the Marine Corps’ 382nd Platoon.
The code was used to report the coordinates of specific targets as well as the movement of both American and enemy troops.
This unpenatrateable code gave the Marines the upper hand needed to win the war, and moreover provided the U.S. with protection.
“There were no machines or other devices that could scramble voice communications that could be used on the front lines,” David A. Hatch, the National Security Agency’s historian, said in an interview on Thursday. “What the code talkers did was to provide absolute security for the information we transmitted on the radios, denying to the enemy vital information that we were picking up from their communications.”
To this day, it is the only military code that has never been cracked.
Nez was born on Jan. 23, 1921, in Chichiltah, N.M. His family would now be considered upper-middle class; they made their earnings by herding a large flock of sheep. In the 1930’s the Nez family was forced to downscale to subsistence farming after the federal government slaughtered thousands of sheep, calling it “overgrazing the region.”
Nez bounced among several boarding schools in New Mexico and Arizona that were part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs—a collection of schools that focused on assimilating American Indians into white society.
It was at this time that he was assigned the name Chester, after President Chester A. Arthur.
Nez is survived by two sons, Michael and Tyah, nine grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.
He was the last surviving member of the 29 original code talkers.