Chester Nez (2)

The dying language that saved a nation


Navajo Code Talkers

Photo courtesy, the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Division


Stories about Chester Nez (the man on the left in the photo) say that he was “born under the oak trees” on an Indian Reservation [land given to American Indians to live on] in New Mexico [one of the 50 states in America].  Chester was a Navajo Indian.  As a boy, he took care of his grandmother’s sheep. But when he was old enough to be in high school, his family sent him to a boarding school in the state of Arizona.  It was not easy to be away from his family and it was not easy to be a Native American Indian!  At the boarding school, one of the teachers put soap and water in his mouth for speaking in Navajo!

     Very few people can speak the Navajo language. It is an oral [spoken, not written] language. It is very hard to pronounce [to speak correctly].  It was a “dying language” [a language that fewer and fewer people speak until no one speaks it anymore].  But thanks to Chester Nez and 28 other Navajo Indians, their language helped to save America during World War II.  

     Chester and the other men had to create a code language [secret language] to use during battles that the Japanese could not understand.  The Japanese were very, very good at breaking code languages. They broke every language the U.S. Marines tried to use, except the Navajo code language.  It was the only code language the Japanese were never able to understand.  It is the only war code language in modern times (anywhere in the world) that was not broken.

     The “Code Talkers” (as they were called) created a secret language, a secret alphabet, and a special dictionary based on the Navajo language.  They used very simple everyday Navajo words so that they could easily remember their code meanings.  For example, the Navajo word for “turtle” in the code language meant “tank”.   They worked in teams of two.  One person sent and received [got] messages. The other person kept the radio working and listened for mistakes.  Today it is known that they sent 100s and 100s [hundreds and hundreds] of coded messages without a single mistake.   

     Chester said that all his life he felt proud of his language.  But for many, many years the Code Talkers could not tell anyone what they did!  It was only 23 years after the end of the war, that they could talk about it. After that, Chester loved to tell the story to all who would listen. (He even wrote a book about it.) 

     It is easy to understand why he thought it is important for a country to respect and help save all the languages spoken in that country.  His people’s “dying” language helped save his country! 


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