Chester Nez, last of original Navajo code talkers of World War II, dies at 93

Posted at 8:39 PM, Jun 04, 2014
and last updated 2014-06-04 20:44:44-04

(CNN) – Chester Nez, the last of the original Navajo code talkers credited with creating an unbreakable code used during World War II, died Wednesday at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Navajo Nation President said. He was 93.

Nez was one of the 29 Navajos recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps to develop the code that would be used by hundreds of code talkers during the war.

“The Navajo Nation flags will all be lowered to half-mast in honor of our hero passing away,” President Ben Shelly said.

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Nez was a teenager when he was recruited to develop the code. He was assigned with the other code talkers to the Marine Corps’ 382nd Platoon.

Military authorities chose Navajo as a code language because it was almost impossible for a non-Navajo to learn and had no written form.

The code talkers were forbidden from telling anyone about it — not their fellow Marines, not their families — until it was declassified in 1968. The original 29 were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001 by President George W. Bush.

“In developing our code, we were careful to use everyday Navajo words, so that we could memorize and retain the words easily,” Nez told CNN in 2011 while promoting his book “Code Talker.”

“I think that made our job easier, and I think it helped us to be successful in the heat of battle.”

Still, Nez said he worried every day that an error might cost the life of an American military service member.

Nez fought in Guadalcanal, Guam and Peleliu, where the code talkers worked in teams of two with one relaying and receiving messages while the other cranked the portable radio and listened for errors in transmission.

“When bombs dropped, generally we code talkers couldn’t just curl up in a shelter,” Nez wrote in his book. “We were almost always needed to transmit information, to ask for supplies and ammunition, and to communicate strategies. And after each transmission, to avoid Japanese fire, we had to move.”

Nez said he decided to tell his story because he wanted to share the contributions and sacrifices of the Navajo during World War II.

“Our Navajo code was one of the most important military secrets of World War II. The fact that the Marines did not tell us Navajo men how to develop that code indicated their trust in us and in our abilities,” he said.

“The feeling that I could make it in both the white world and the Navajo world began there, and it has stayed with me all of my life. For that I am grateful.”