Sunday, June 15, 2014

162.7 - RIP: Chester Nez

RIP: Chester Nez

We have an RIP this week. You may have heard about this; it got a decent amount of coverage, but just in case you didn't, it's interesting enough to note. It revolves around one of the lesser-known - better-known than it was, but still lesser-known - stories of World War II.

The man's name was Chester Nez, and he died of kidney failure on June 4. He was believed to be 93.

Chester Nez was born at Cousin Brothers Trading Post on the Navajo Nation, about 15 miles southwest of Gallup, New Mexico. The offical date for his birth was Jan. 23, 1921, but his family isn’t certain of the actual date.

He grew up at Chichiltah - which I hope I am pronouncing correctly and means “among the oaks” - until, at age 9, he was sent to boarding school where the federal government was determined to teach him, as it did with many native children, to be white. He was required to learn and always speak English. He was punished by having his mouth washed out with soap if he spoke his native tongue.

In 1942, in response to military recruiters who came to the school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. And this is where it gets interesting.

Chester Nez was the last survivor of the original group of Code Talkers. The Code Talkers were Navajos recruited by the US military in World War II with the idea that they could create an essentially unbreakable code.

You see, very few non-Navajos spoke Navajo - and it was a pretty safe bet that probably none of them were in the Japanese military. What's more, the Navajo language had no written form.

So Nez and 28 other Navajos were set the task of developing a code based on their native language. It  took them 13 weeks, but they created an initial glossary of more than 200 terms using Navajo words as well as an alphabet.

Each Code Talker memorized the code, which involved assigning letters to terms in the Navajo language and substituting Navajo words for military terms. For example, a submarine was an iron fish, a tank was a tortoise, a grenade was a potato, and so on.

They then went into combat with various US Marine units in the Pacific, communicating with each other in their code via radio.

Although the Japanese had proved themselves skilled code-breakers, this code was never broken. Because after all, how do you break a code spoken in a language probably no one in your entire country speaks and which you don't even have a way to write down?

This wasn't the first use of Native Americans as Code Talkers; in fact, it appears to have originated in World War I when the task was taken on by Cherokees and Choctaws. Nor were Navajos the only Native Americans so used by the military in World War II: Lakota, Meskwaki, and Comanche soldiers were also used as Code Talkers; in all, including the Navajo, 16 Native American peoples contributed their language skills.

Nez was proud of what he did in the war, which is a bit ironic considering that at the time he enlisted, Navajos could not even vote in this country. But for a long time he couldn't tell anyone what he had done because, with the usual grace with which the government gives up its secrets, the program was not declassified until 1968 - which was especially silly because people had already known about the program for some time: The 1959 movie "Never So Few" includes a Navajo Code Talker as a character.

Nevertheless, what I have always found interesting about the story - beyond an enduring movie-driven image of Japanese soldiers listening the Code Talkers on their radios and scratching their heads in utter bewilderment - is what it tells us about the variety and complexity of human language and the cultural importance of preserving the rapidly-declining language diversity which we on this planet now have.

So Chester Nez, last of the original World War II Code Talkers, know that what you did was about more than winning a war: It was about the idea of cultural survival, about preserving and celebrating complexity and cultural diversity.

RIP, Chester Nez.

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