RIP, The Last of the Navajo Code Talkers

(Photo: Jake Schoellkkopf/Los Angeles Times)

During World War II, the United States searched for means to protect its secret military communications in the Pacific from being intercepted by the Japanese. In 1942, the Marine Corps discovered a brilliant way of doing just that: recruiting men of the Navajo Nation to speak in their own language, which was unknown to the Japanese.

(Photo: US Navy)

The Navajo Code Talkers, as these 400 Marines came to be known, contributed to Allied victories in the Pacific. Because their code was never broken, it could be used again. So the program was not declassified until 1968. It was only in 1992 that the code talkers were honored collectively for their work.

The last member of this team, Chester Nez, died today at the age of 93. Nez was among the first Navajo men to join the program. The Los Angeles Times reports:

In his memoirs, Nez said he knew he made the right decision to join the fight.

“I reminded myself that my Navajo people had always been warriors, protectors," he said. "In that there was honor. I would concentrate on being a warrior, on protecting my homeland. Within hours, whether in harmony or not, I knew I would join my fellow Marines in the fight."

The code, which they had to memorize, was based on a system in which the Navajos used their own words to substitute for the 26 letters in the English alphabet. For example, the word "wol-la-chee" means "ant" and it might have stood for the letter A in a coded message.

Because the Navajos had no words applicable to modern warfare, they settled on hundreds of descriptive words in their own language.

A tank was a tortoise; a submarine, an iron fish; a dive bomber, a chicken hawk; a grenade, a potato; a battleship, a whale. Bombs were eggs, and the commanding general a war chief.

-via Marilyn Terrell

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