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Navajos Honored for War of Words

July 26, 2001|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALBUQUERQUE — As a young boy in the 1920s, Chester Nez was punished for speaking in his native Navajo language, his mouth washed out with soap by the administrators of the government boarding school he attended.

Today, President Bush will present Nez with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, because of his skillful use of the Navajo language as a World War II leatherneck to confound the Japanese in the Pacific.

Nez and 28 fellow Navajos formed the original U.S. Marine platoon of the so-called Navajo code talkers, an elite band of radio operators who, speaking in their own complex tongue, passed critical messages between commanders and front-line troops that proved indecipherable to the enemy.

Using the Navajo word for "bird" to talk of aircraft, "eggs" for bombs, "beavers" for minesweepers and "tortoises" for tanks, Nez and the others created a code that was written nowhere and recognizable only in the American desert Southwest.

"It was all up here," he says, tapping his temple.

Use of the Navajo code remained a military secret for more than 20 years, delaying any recognition the Navajo code talkers might have received for their critical role in the Pacific theater. On returning from battle, they told their families only that they were infantrymen. Stoically, they kept their secret until 1968, when the Pentagon finally declassified the tactic.

At the behest of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Congress has now taken note of the role of the Navajo men. At today's ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, Nez, three of the four other surviving members of the original platoon and the families of the 25 other Navajo code talkers--most of them long dead--will formally receive the nation's thanks.

Nez, now 80 and living in Albuquerque, where he creates pencil and charcoal drawings of animals and Navajo figures, can only ponder the irony of it all.

"We often think of how, back in the '20s and '30s, we were told, 'Don't speak Navajo.' They washed our mouths out with soap. It was a bitter, brown soap, and they used toothbrushes to scrub our tongues with it. Then Uncle Sam came along and told us to use our language in World War II. We were very proud. We spoke to each other of how we were the chosen ones, how we were asked to use our language to help win World War II."

Nez and the others had no idea what was in store for them when Marine Corps recruiters scoured the Indian schools of Arizona and New Mexico during the spring of 1942.

The military had used various Indian languages as code in limited fashion during World War I. Resurrecting and refining the strategy was urgent because the Japanese had broken every other code employed by the Allies.

The unwritten Navajo language, called Dine', was chosen for its complex syntax and tonal qualities--sometimes nasal, sometimes a gurgling sound that makes it virtually unintelligible to those not steeped in the culture.

The Army similarly was recruiting Comanches to serve as code talkers for battlefields in Europe, and Hopis in the Pacific.

The Navajo recruits were told nothing of their mission. But to teenagers looking to escape the reservation, the notion of a uniform and a military adventure was all they needed to hear.

Nez, approaching his 18th birthday, had figured his future was growing corn, pinto beans and squash like his father, or herding sheep.

"The Navajo feeling is to go to the top of the hill and see what's on the other side," Nez said.

The 29 young Navajos were sent to the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego for basic training and then to nearby Camp Elliott, where they learned what their mission would be.

"The brass came by and told us to use our language to come up with words representing the letters A to Z, and to come up with a code for military terms," Nez said. "They put us all in a room to work it out and, at first, everybody thought we'd never make it. It seemed impossible because even among ourselves, we didn't agree on all the right Navajo words."

In some instances, they created Navajo words unknown even to their parents.

To this day he can still recite the coded alphabet--dibeh-yazzi (lamb) for L, ca-yeilth (quiver) for Q, gloe-ih (weasel) for W.

For 13 weeks, the young enlistees drilled themselves on the evolving code. They showed they could encode, transmit and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds--at a time when code machines would take 30 minutes to perform the same task.

"We knew nobody in the world could decipher our code," he said. "It made us feel real proud."

In October 1942, Nez and his colleagues shipped out to the South Pacific. Sometimes they performed their radio code work aboard ship, but he said he preferred wading ashore with fellow Marines, "where you could act more independently."

He participated in the amphibious assaults at Bougainville, Guadalcanal and Peleliu, and recalls in horrific detail--spawning nightmares to this day--the terror of the combat he and the other Marines encountered.

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