|Corporal Chester Nez, U.S.M.C.|
Buried under headlines full of election-year vitriol, fighting in the middle east, conflict in Ukraine, ebola, comments by a basketball team owner, nuts with guns killing police officers and civilians, religious nuts with bombs killing anyone they can, and other cheery items... were 2 obituaries. Odds are that they didn't even make it into your local paper, or newsfeed, and even if they did you probably skipped them.
On June 4, a 93 year-old man died in Albuquerque of kidney failure. He was born in 1921 in Chi Chil Tah, New Mexico. Never heard of it? Join the club. It's an unincorporated area of land on an Indian reservation in western New Mexico. He could have been anyone's father, or grandfather, or great-grandfather, from that remarkable Greatest Generation.
But Chester Nez was so much more.
He was the last living member of a group of 29 men who were critical to the Allied victory in WW2.
They were the original Navajo Code Talkers.
You've likely heard the story to some degree. American forces needed an unbreakable code to fight their way across the Pacific. There was a successful one already in use, but it required a long time to transmit, receive, and decode at the opposite ends. And time, in the rapidly changing situation of combat, is one thing you don't have.
The U.S. had used Choctaw and Cherokee code talkers, with great success, in WWI (you probably didn't know that, either. Maybe I'll tell that story another time). In the buildup to WW2, however, the Germans were aware of this and sent anthropologists to the U.S. to learn as much about the native languages as they could. As a result they were used only on a small scale in Europe, with Comanche and Meskwaki talkers serving at Normandy and in Africa, respectively. Seminole talkers served in both Europe and the Pacific.
Navajo is a complex language. As of 1942 it hadn't even been set on paper, and was only known through oral teaching. It has a different grammar structure from other North American native tongues, and is indecipherable for those not familiar with it.
Philip Johnston, who'd been raised on the reservation in a family of missionaries, was one of the rare non-native speakers. In 1942 he approached the army with the idea, and they began quietly recruiting Navajo men. In tests under simulated battle conditions they found the talkers could relay an operational message in 30 seconds - compared to roughly 30 minutes using the standard encode-and-decode system. The cipher they finally developed was an odd combination of phonetic alphabet, straight words, and approximations (for when there wasn't a Navajo equivalent for English). Bombers became buzzards. Submarines were iron fish. Tanks were tortoises.
Codebooks to teach the new system were developed, but carefully watched and never left classrooms. Testing by U.S. codebreakers unfamiliar with Navajo showed that, to a non-speaker, it was unintelligible gibberish.
The Navajos were rapidly deployed. At Iwo Jima, home of one of the world's most iconic photographs, 6 code talkers operated continuously for 48 hours. They called in fire support, updated positions, relayed new orders, and allowed the commanders to quickly adjust to changes ashore. Major Howard Connor, commanding the Marines' signal division, later said that, without the Navajos, the island wouldn't have been taken.
It remains, to this day, the only spoken code that was never broken.
Not that the Japanese didn't try... Early in the war, at Corregidor, they captured Joe Kieyoomia, a Navajo serving in the army. Joe subsequently survived the Bataan Death March. He was viciously beaten by the Japanese, who thought his facial features meant he was of Japanese descent, and therefore a traitor. Eventually he was put in a concentration camp outside Nagasaki with other soldiers.
When the Japanese suspected the code was an Indian tongue, they tried to have Joe translate for them. He recognized the words, but since he didn't know the arranged structure and phonetics he couldn't understand it. As a result they tortured him even more viciously, then made him stand naked in snow. His feet froze to the ground, and when they shoved him back to his cell, the soles tore. Somehow surviving that... he went on to live through the atomic bombing, too. He died in New Mexico in 1997, and you probably didn't see his obituary, either.
Edmond Harjo, the last surviving Seminole code talker, died this year, too, on March 31, 2014. He was 96. He served in more territory than most, sending and receiving messages at both D-Day and Iwo Jima.
And the man I started the article with, Chester Nez, returned after the war and eventually became a painter at the Veterans' Hospital in Albuquerque. When he died on June 4, 2014 he was the last survivor of the original Navajo code talkers, who served with such great distinction far from home.