Chester Nez was punished for speaking his native Navajo language. At the English speaking boarding school he went to as a child, he was forced to rinse his mouth with soap water!
But it was the comfort he had with his mother tongue that saved the day for America during World War II. Nez was the last surviving members of the band of men who became famous as the Navajo Code Talkers.
He died last week at the age of 93.
Native-American Language To The Rescue
As World War II was raging on, the US was struggling to create a secret code that could not be deciphered by the enemy. Having been unwillingly dragged into the war by the bombings on Pearl Harbor, the US air force and navy had been unable to overcome the Japanese forces. Every secret code that the Americans had come up with had been broken by the Japanese.
It was then that WWI veteran Philip Johnston came up with a brilliant idea. How about using a code based on a Native-American language – one known only to its tribesmen? Johnston, who was fluent in the Navajo language, had realized during his earlier battle experiences that when Choctaw Indians talked to each other in their native language, it completely baffled the Germans. Johnston rounded up 29 Navajo Indians and within weeks, the Code Talkers defined and perfected their code based on the un-written Navajo language.
Interestingly, the code was so complex that even another Navajo Indian who wasn't a Code Talker would not have been able to decipher it. A coded message would appear as a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words, which would first have to be translated into its English meaning. The first letter of each English word would invariably be the clue. For instance, the word "Navy" in Navajo code would be "tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)."
Some Navajo words represented military terms directly. For instance, "besh- lo" (iron fish) meant "submarine," while "dah-he- tih-hi" (hummingbird) meant "fighter plane".
On The Battlefield
The Code Talkers handled all major communications for the US during World War II. Their skills were first tested during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima was a key strategic location for the Japanese forces, from where they could spot incoming attackers and also launch attacks against the US. If the US could capture Iwo Jima, the Japanese resistance would crumble. The Code Talkers rose to the challenge magnificently, delivering more than 800 perfect messages that eventually led to the U.S. capture of Iwo Jima.
For Nez, the pride of serving his country in the war was always foremost in his mind. Even on the morning of his death, Nez had several apperances scheduled. At these meets, Nez would passionately talk about how he and his fellow comrades used their native langauge to shape one of the turning points of world history.