Book review: ‘Code Talker,’ by Chester Nez
Special to the Daily
World War II was a massive conflict that spelled death for millions of people from all around the world, and behind every soldier who fought against the Axis nations were countless others who helped make the final outcome successful.
Many of them were individuals who worked in the shadows, hidden behind vows of secrecy. The scientists and engineers who worked at Los Alamos, building the bombs that would end the war in an earth-shattering fashion, and the determined men and women of Bletchley Park in England, who persisted in breaking Germany’s Enigma code, all labored on the home front, far from the theaters of war, to help cultivate an end to the devastating conflict.
But one group of men accomplished their top-secret mission directly on the front lines, persevering for months on end in dangerous foxholes across the islands of the Pacific. The recent book “Code Talker,” by Chester Nez, tells the captivating tale of the bravery and the quiet commitment of the 29 original Navajo code talkers who helped the Allies win the war in the Pacific.
The contributions of Nez and his fellow Navajo radio operators remained classified until 1968, when the world finally learned of their amazing efforts to aid the United States, a country that the Navajo people, historically, had very little reason to love. As a child growing up in the “checkerboard” area of the Navajo Nation, Nez and his fellow code talkers had always been berated and mocked by the white man community for speaking their native language.
Keeping the Language Alive
Nez had been raised on the stories of his people, an oral sharing of histories that has kept the Navajo language alive. Nez was sent to a boarding school at a young age, where the U.S. government mandated that Navajo children were to be taught exclusively in English. As Nez relates, the challenges were real. He was very young, homesick and always hungry, but in spite of the conditions, he was eager to learn, and he became proficient in English while maintaining his native tongue, a talent that would prove crucial as the war in the Pacific ramped up and Japan showed itself to be a merciless foe, adept at breaking every code the Allies tried to utilize.
Though the bulk of the narrative focuses on the months spent on the battle field, Nez relates what life was like on the reservation, where he was raised simply, living with his maternal grandmother in her traditional hogan, where they were shepherds to the flocks of sheep that were the tribe’s livelihood. But when the call to arms came, Nez and many other young Navajo men answered, unaware they would be tasked to create an unbreakable code based on the very language the government had been actively trying to eradicate.
But Nez and the others were committed. “We, like other Native Americans, had been born to the warrior tradition. Like other Navajos, we saw ourselves as inseparable from the earth we lived upon. And as protectors of what is sacred, we were eager to defend our land.”
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the military saw an advantage within the Navajo community who had attended English schools. Philip Johnson, a marine who had lived as a child with his missionary parents on the Navajo reservation, saw promise in a language that had no record in written form; it existed exclusively as a spoken tradition, filled with so many nuances and complexities that anyone not raised in it would not be able to understand it.
The creation of the code was an extraordinary endeavor, and the book includes the original Code Talker’s dictionary, which, along with many photos, makes for fascinating study. The men crafted, practiced and perfected the code, knowing that many lives would hinge on its successful use. The code, so specific to their language, could not be used by just any military personnel trained in it, which meant Nez and the other 28 would be deployed to the front lines, where, under direct fire and deplorable conditions, the men were tasked with relaying countless messages during the heat of battle.
“Code Talker” is not only a compelling study of one of the most ingenious codes of war, it is also a story that gives just honor to the men who put their egos aside and not only stepped up when their country asked, but who held their powerful secret close for decades afterwards, in spite of the pain and debilitating memories that built as they held to that vow of secrecy. Chester Nez was the last of the original code talkers, and he has since passed on, but his legacy, and that of his brave Navajo companions, will live on in history.