No doubt about it: Chester Nez is a true American hero. And in a delightful new book, Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII (Berkley Hardcover, 2011), he takes his readers into the under-explored world of the Navajo code talkers.
This first authentic, detailed, eyewitness account of Navajo code talking ever published is a welcome addition not only to military history in general, but also to the long and distinguished history of Native American military service. Previously the story of the Navajo code talkers, who served in every Marines assault of the Pacific theater from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima, had only been related in broad terms, with little cultural context. But as Nez makes very clear, these brave and unselfish men used their native Diné language—which they were forbidden to speak in boarding school—to transmit coded messages by telephone and radio. In the process they made an invaluable cultural contribution to the United States’ war effort, with scant thanks or recognition.
Perhaps Nez’s willingness to take his readers beyond the narrative to give them an insider’s view of distinctive Navajo culture is the most compelling aspect of this story. The book is full of vivid and colorful descriptions of his life at home, both before and after the war.
With help from co-author Judith Avila, who spent a number of years interviewing Nez and conducting background research on what she learned from him, Nez paints a poignant picture of his New Mexico childhood on a typical Navajo sheep farm. He also discusses his days in boarding school, where Navajo children who made the mistake of speaking in their native tongue were severely punished for doing so.
His story is no tale of sour grapes, though. When the opportunity to serve in the Marines during World War II presented itself, Nez jumped at the chance, eager to pitch in. His bilingual status got him selected as one of the war’s first code talkers. The Japanese never managed to break the secret military-communications code that he and 28 other Navajo men helped develop.
Sadly, despite their unique contribution to America’s victory, these men returned home without fanfare because the work of the code talkers remained classified until 1968. Prohibited from speaking about their experiences, these brave men never had the chance to receive their rightful recognition as vital members of America’s most elite fighting force. Instead, they lived out much of their postwar years in relative obscurity. Today, Nez is the only surviving code talker of the 421 altogether who served.
This book is required reading for anyone interested in the underappreciated legacy of the code talkers. But students and enthusiasts of World War II, especially those who are interested in the Pacific theater, will appreciate it as well. Students of the American Indian experience in the 20th century should add this volume to their lists, too. This enjoyable, enlightening retrospective is an important addition to a long-overlooked segment of Native history in America.