Chester Nez, the last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers of World War II, died last week. I had the privilege of interviewing several of that amazing group while researching my book, “The Unbreakable Code,” 20 years ago. It remains a highlight of my life. Their humility, humor, courage and loyalty to our country continue to inspire me.
While 25,000 Native Americans fought in World War II, including 420 Navajo code talkers, the original 29 who invented the code had no idea what they were in for when they boarded a bus for a secret military project, leaving their reservation for the first time in their lives.
The youngest, Dean Wilson, age 16 (a brusque, tough, heart-of-gold kind of guy) and the oldest, Carl Gorman, age 32 (an angel of humor and good will) had both lied about their age in order to enlist. When the talented illustrator Julia Miner and I met them, they were still living on the reservation in the Four Corners area of Arizona and New Mexico.
Despite the fact that their secret missions took them into some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, they still faced discrimination in the postwar job market. This meant they and fellow code talkers had returned to the reservation and were relatively easy to locate.
Because the existence of the code was not declassified until 1968, most suffered the same prejudices they had suffered before the war. They were not even able to vote until 1948.
Dean Wilson, Carl Gorman and other code talkers we interviewed had been forced from their homes at the age of 5 to attend government or church boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak Navajo (under penalty of lye soap in the mouth) and where their ceremonial, religious pony tails were chopped off.
Carl always spoke with a twinkle in his eye about his attempts to run away to his home and family. Once he nearly made it, only to be recaptured. He remembered being chained under the school infirmary for several days as punishment.
Dean dreaded the cottonwood trees turning gold each fall, knowing it was a sign he’d soon be leaving beautiful Canyon De Chelly and heading back to the place he detested. When he first heard the radio announcement that Navajos who could speak English fluently were needed for a secret military project, he ran away to enlist. A short time later, he, Carl and Chester Nez boarded a bus at midnight with 26 other new Marine recruits, headed they knew not where.
The Navajos excelled in their military exercises at boot camp in California. As they explained, they had marched in drills at boarding school for years and had often survived on the reservation with little to eat. The next task was more complicated.
They were locked in a room with bars on the windows and told that the language they’d been forbidden to speak was needed to help their country. The irony was lost on none of them, but neither was the fact that their homeland was threatened by enemy forces. The code word they devised for America was: “Our Mother.”
Like many of their fellow “Greatest Generation” veterans, the Navajo Marines we met did not like to talk about the bombing, shooting and hand-to-hand combat they witnessed and participated in at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Iwo Jima. They would often make a sweeping motion over their shoulders and say that the memories were better left “back there.”
In the Navajo culture, evil thoughts and memories are considered pollutants in the home. Most of the men had bottled their worst memories and were not allowed to share even their triumphant moments with family, due to the continuing secrecy of the code.
All the men I interviewed were deeply proud of their military service and their defense of “Our Mother.” A major New York publisher who had encouraged my writing the book reneged when she read the manuscript. She couldn’t believe the code talkers weren’t more bitter about their experiences. Fortunately, a publisher in Flagstaff, Arizona, more tuned into the Navajo Nation, got it.
Eighteen years later, “The Unbreakable Code” is still in print and going strong. I visit multiple classrooms each year, speaking of the heroic inventors of the code and teaching children how to use the English version of it when they want to keep a secret. In 2006, the governor of Arizona made it the state’s literacy book of the year and, through sponsors, awarded a copy to all 88,000 Arizona fourth-graders.
My memories of the men I came to know are recalled in vignettes: gentle artist/tough soldier Carl Gorman sketching on a paper placemat over fry bread and coffee at the Navajo Nation Inn while he recounted the horrors of Guadalcanal — never making eye contact; Albert Smith shaking his head at the travesty of the beautiful, tropical island of Saipan strafed and burned, becoming misty-eyed as he described his return 50 years later to thank the island residents for its restoration.
But what I remember the most is the clear voice of Nina Begay, wife of the late, great Thomas Begay, singing our national anthem in Navajo before the group broke bread at the monthly dinner gathering of the Code Talker Association.
The heroes I interviewed are gone, but I keep in touch with family members I came to know and love. Last week, Zonnie Gorman told me how hard it was to lose Chester Nez. She said it felt like the end of an era and made her miss her father, the oldest code talker, Carl Gorman, even more keenly.
For my part, I’ve saved Carl’s placemat sketch of two Indians leaning over their grazing horses to remind me of his unflappable serenity, irrepressible joy and deep love of our land. In the words of a Navajo prayer he once recited:
“There shall be happiness before us. There shall be happiness behind us. There shall be happiness above us. There shall be happiness below us. There shall be happiness all around us. Words of happiness shall extend from our mouths for we are the essence of life, the source of happiness. All is finished in beauty. All is finished in beauty. All is finished in beauty.”
Sara Hoagland Hunter, of Dover, Massachusetts, is the author of 10 books for children. Her most recent book is “Every Turtle Counts,” about the rescue of a rare sea turtle by a child on the autism spectrum (www.sarahunterproductions.com).