Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day, 2014

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.

23 comments:

FrauKatz said...

I love the stories from your work, but I adore your historical postings. Makes the past come to life again in a very personal and touching way. Thank you.

yarnwhore said...

Thank you. I've been so immersed in WWI because of the Centennial that this is a great other side. If you have any books to recommend, I'd love to know about them.

Sara / Aryanhwy said...

Thanks for sharing this story. Stories like these should not be forgotten.

Heidi said...

Your post touched me deeply. Thank you!

Hllbillygirl G said...

Thank you Grumpy. These things should never be forgotten. Thank you for keeping them alive. Jennifer

Aunt Murry said...

I for once can say that I did not miss it. It did make our local news. I have loved the he stories about the code talkers since I was little. Thanks for pointing this out!

bunkywise said...

You're beginning to turn me into a history buff! I never thought that could happen but you are a gifted storyteller (unlike any history teacher I ever had.)

clairesmum said...

Came over for my history lesson today, and learned several new things....would love to hear about the use of Native American languages as code in WWI...thanks, Grumpy!

Anonymous said...

Blessings on these men. And thanks to you, a few people know their story and will remember their courage and sacrifice.

Lizard said...

that is beautiful. I knew of the code talkers, but I love thinking of the individuals and honoring them. Such bravery and service.

thanks

bobbie said...

Thank you for helping keep the memory of these men alive ~
I'm another who would love to hear more about their WW1 counterparts.

Denise Perry said...

You know, if you hadn't gone into medicine, I think you would have been an amazing history teacher.

Thank you for letting us know about these amazing men.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing these stories with us Grumpy. Should you give up your day job as a Mongolian yak herder, you would make a great history professor.

Eileen said...

Thank you - I also love your history posts. More please very nicely!

Nana said...

Joining those sending kudos your way. The LA Times was among the papers to acknowledge this loss; and there was a film a few years ago.
But the reminders are helpful, and so meaningful.

Sheri Karobonik said...

A Very good story. Thank You, By the way there was an article in the Arizona Daily Star. He was a local hero as were all the code talkers.

Struck by a Turtle said...

Thanks for remembering and sharing.

Candida Gomez said...

Thank you for sharing this. I knew about the Navajo code (I read bombs were "eggs"), but I had no idea about the WWI code talkers! Thank you!

@bunkywise: History is grand fun and all kinds of awesome when you read the cool stuff instead of the edited, filtered, and often erroneous stuff in school textbooks. I recommend 50 Battles that Changed the World for a good starting point.

(And I'm not kidding about 'erroneous'; often the publishing houses don't listen to their own experts!)

Anonymous said...

interesting, a lot more than what the obit stated

Anonymous said...

I love your military history posts. They are so well written.

The Navajo Code talkers was always such an interesting part of our history, it really pissed me off how Hollywood did such a BAD job at telling the story. I mean, they almost had to try to do such a bad job. Damn you Nicholas Cage.

Veronica Reilly said...

The world has lost two more great men. Semper Fi!
Veronica
USMC, Retired

migraineur said...

Thank you for your amazing post. You find such incredible historical info, that truly cover material not in modern textbooks. For those who are interested, there is a movie about the Navajo code breakers called 'Windtalkers'. As a forewarning, it does have Nicholas Cage as a main actor, but it's earlier in his work so his hesitations aren't as noticeable.

Anonymous said...

The New Zealand forces in WW1 used Maori speakers for the same purpose. You probably didn't know that, either.

 
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