The very last of a unique breed of American hero passed away, marking the end of an era for both the United States and the U.S. Marine Corps.
LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Chester Nez, the last Navajo code talker, passed away at the age of 93 at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on June 4, and was mourned by the Marine Corps in a statement that day.
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"The passing of Chester Nez . . . sadly marks the end of an era in our country's and Marine Corps' history. We mourn his passing but honor and celebrate the indomitable spirit and dedication of those Marines who became known as the Navajo Code Talkers," said the statement.
Nez was 21 when he was recruited in 1942, and was one of the original 29 Navajo Marines who developed a secret communication code based on the Navajo language. The Code was one of the few that the Japanese were unable to break, and remained in service with the Marines through the Korean war and the beginning of Vietnam.
Nez fought at Guadalcanal, Guam and Peleliu before he was honorably discharged as a corporal in 1945, and rejoined the Marines for two years during the Korean war.
Philip Johnston, a WWI veteran who was fluent in the language, first proposed the use of the Navajo language to the Marines during the beginning of WWII. Prior to WWII, it was estimated that only 30 non-Navajos could understand the language, which is not mutually intelligible with its closest language relatives and at the time was unwritten. Johnston saw that the language fulfilled the military's desire for an undecipherable code as the language was only spoken in the American Southwest, and its syntax, tonal qualities and dialects made it unintelligible to anyone without extensive training and exposure.
The code talkers were commended for the skill, speed and accuracy throughout the war. After the battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, a 5th Marine Division signal officer, stated that "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Connor commanded six of the code talkers, and had them working round the clock during the battle's first two days.
Nez published a book about his experiences called "Code Talker" in 2011. "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 while promoting his book, "I think that made our job easier, and I think it helped us to be successful in the heat of battle."
In his book, Nez talked about his combat experiences.
"When bombs dropped, generally we code talkers couldn't just curl up in a shelter. 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."
Though the code talkers made significant contributions to the war effort, they were unable to receive any recognition until the operation was declassified in 1968. President Ronald Reagan was the first to recognize their service, giving them a Certificate of Recognition in 1982.
On December 21, 2000, the original 29 code talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and Silver Medals were awarded to each person who qualified as a Navajo code talker; four of the last five surviving code talkers were presented with the medals by President George W. Bush in 2001 at a ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda. Gold medals were also presented to the families of the other 24 code talkers who where no longer alive.
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