Michael. He was 93. His family said he died of
He was a member of the all-Navajo 382nd Marine
"It's the chapter about the first Navajo Code
Talkers coming to a close," said Smith, 52,
whose late father was also a Code Talker, but
not one of the original group. "People talk
about it, and you never think it's going to
happen in your lifetime. They are carrying the
past with them.
"To see this in a lifetime, it's sad. I hope it
makes us (Navajo people) stronger."
Other Navajo veterans echoed Smith's words in
the Navajo language, saying Nez "baa hane' yée
éí t'áá kódiíji' bíighah silíí'," his life story
Smith said that creating the code "was a unit
effort. As Marines we are all one. We fight as
one with the tools that we are given."
The Code Talkers
Nez grew up in the tiny New Mexico Navajo
community of Chi Chil Tah, in Jones Ranch, N.M.
Nez was attending the Tuba City Boarding School
when the U.S. Marines came looking for young
boys to help in World War II. Nez, in an
interview three years ago, told The Arizona
Republic he signed on with other friends because
they were eager for an adventure that would
allow them to see what was on the other side of
Nez spoke about growing up in a family of Navajo
shepherds. When his father saw that the
government had ordered the herds to be thinned
because the animals were overgrazing Navajo
land, Nez was placed in school.
When he reached high school in the early 1940s,
educators moved some students to Tuba City
Boarding School, on the far western portion of
the reservation north of Flagstaff. The boys
learned English in school. They knew little of
the world beyond the sacred mountains that
circled their homeland.
On Dec. 7, 1941, 3,000 miles away, a sky full of
planes unleashed fire on Pearl Harbor. The
reservation was quiet, but the world was at war.
The military, ferrying troops to battle sites
across the Pacific, was urgently seeking an
undecipherable code to transmit classified
information. It had attempted to use various
languages and dialects as code, but each was
cracked by cryptographers in Tokyo.
Philip Johnston, a former Army engineer and the
son of Presbyterian missionaries, had lived on
the Navajo Reservation. He proposed an idea: Try
using the Navajo language.
Written record of the language was scarce. Its
syntax and grammar were elaborate. The spoken
language used tones that were difficult for an
untrained ear to understand.
The language might prove harder for the enemy to
So on a spring day in 1942, Nez said, the Marine
recruiters in red and white uniforms showed up
at the school. They were seeking smart Navajo
boys who spoke their native language and
Nez remembered he longed to see the world beyond
the reservation. He signed up.
But in the 2011 interview, Nez could not
remember how he learned the code.
One soldier suggested creating an alphabet using
Navajo words; another proposed using native
words for animals, plants, neighboring tribes or
weapons, according to Sally McClain, author of
"Navajo Weapon." McClain collected first-person
accounts from several of the original Code
Talkers. Nez said words for the code came from
everyday words used on the reservation.
According to the Republic article, the men
easily attached familiar words to letters to
create a code alphabet.
"A." Wol-la-chee. Ant.
"B." Shush. Bear.
"C." Moasi. Cat.
"D." Be. Deer.
The word "enemy," E-N-E-M-Y, would be Dzeh —
Nesh-chee — Dzeh — Na-as-tsosi — Tash-as-zih.
More challenging, McClain wrote, was devising a
code to represent military equipment such as
ships, planes or ranks of officers. The men
struggled to describe war objects they had never
seen during their lives on the reservation.
The code worked. The Japanese couldn't decipher
it. After that, the Marines used several other
groups of Navajos during the war to work on the
code, which played an important role in
defeating the Japanese.
After the war
After the war, the original Code Talkers quietly
returned to the Navajo Reservation and never
spoke of the mission they completed until the
The men became known as the original Navajo Code
Their lives were also celebrated in parades,
newspaper articles and books. They also traveled
to schools and around the country to retell
The Navajo Code Talkers Association was formed.
Jean Whitehorse, 65, from Smith Lake, N.M.,
worked with the association for 12 years.
She served as secretary, helping the group get
established. Whitehorse also is the daughter of
the late Edmund Henry Sr., who also enlisted in
the Marines during the war and worked with the
"Each Code Talker had different stories because
they were in different classes and fought in
different areas," Whitehorse remembered. "The
first 29 were put into one room and told to
create a code. The men, like Chester, told me
'even if we spoke Navajo, we would not
understand the code.'"
Whitehorse also collected signatures from the
reservation on behalf of the Code Talkers to
receive recognition from Congress.
Five living original Code Talkers, including
Nez, received medals on July 26, 2001.
"I learned the men took their mission seriously;
it was sacred to them," Whitehorse said. "People
often ask, 'What if our own Navajo saad, the
spoken Navajo, was not used?' Where would we be
Wednesday, Navajo President Ben Shelly ordered
flags be flown at half staff in Window Rock, the
Navajo reservation capital, from sunrise today
to sunset Sunday. The proclamation said Nez,
with the 382nd Platoon in the U.S. Marine Corps,
saw combat in battles of Guadalcanal, Guam,
Peleliu and Bougainville during World War II.
Nez is survived by his son Michael and other
Michael Nez, a Navajo artist, described his
father as strong-willed. The final conversation
the father and son shared was Tuesday night,
when Nez nodded and smiled that he understood
the family was with him.
"My father was never alone, he was with us," Nez
said. "And, he won't be alone because he will be
with other Code Talkers who have passed. I'll
miss him. I'll always think of him. I'll always
speak his name."