RIO RANCHO, N.M. — It’s one of the great stories of heroism from World War II: The efforts of the Navajo Code Talkers to alter the course of that war’s Pacific operations.
Author Judith Schiess Avila visited Meadowlark Senior Center on Tuesday to discuss her bestselling book “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.”
Avila, speaking to about five-dozen senior citizens, told about how she gained the friendship of the late Chester Nez and was able to tell his story. It wasn’t easy because Nez was a modest man and it wasn’t until 1968 that he was able to talk about his days as a code talker.
“Chester trusted me to do my best and show the story honestly,” she said, with Nez’s son and grandson in the MSC audience. “It’s a cool story.”
That tale began with the recruitment of 29 Navajo male students at a Tuba City, Ariz., boarding school into the U.S. Marine Corps.
In an excerpt from her 2011 book, Nez says, “I reminded myself that my Navajo people had always been warriors, protectors. In that there was honor. I would concentrate on being a warrior and on protecting my homeland.” (By the way, Navajos weren’t allowed to vote back then.)
They boarded a bus and headed west, arriving on May 5, 1942, at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. After graduating eight weeks of basic training, they received special instruction at Camp Elliott’s Fleet Marine Training Center and learned how to encrypt messages and operate radios before moving to Camp Pendleton.
“Navajo was not a written language at the time,” Avila told the audience, explaining how some of the code words came about, once they had determined a code for the alphabet.
A fighter plane became hummingbird, a bomb became an egg, and a destroyer became a shark.
Those messages were part of the secret code talker program inside Camp Pendleton’s 5th Marine Division in 1942 and 1943. The young men tweaked their Diné language and English to create a code unbreakable by Japanese forces.
Prior to that, the Japanese had been able to decipher every code transmitted by Allied forces.
“They were sent into battle at Guadalcanal,” Avila said of Nez and about eight or nine of his fellow Navajo Code Talkers.
The others were sent to other Pacific islands.
Also from her book, Nez recalled of the trip to Guadalcanal: “We practiced transmitting messages among ourselves and to code talkers on other ships. The new language became solid and unshakable, embedded in our minds as firmly as childhood memories. We transmitted, deciphered and responded to messages almost without hesitation. We were ready. We hoped.”
After arriving on Guadalcanal in early November 1942 from a Higgins landing craft, Pfc. Nez found himself in a foxhole under siege.
The original 29 code talkers, Avila said, grew to 420 code talkers, also serving in the Pacific. Thirty-three other Native American tribes, including Laguna and Acoma pueblos in New Mexico, had code talkers, but in the European Theater, she said.
“Boarding school taught the kids to think under pressure,” Avila said.
Nez passed away in Albuquerque in June 2014 at the age of 93. He was quoted at the time by the New York Times in a story about his life saying that his first coded message overseas had been: “Anaai (Enemy) naatsosi (Japanese) beeldooh alhaa dildoni (machine gun) nishnaajigo nahdikadgo (on your right flank). Diiltaah (Destroy).”
Nez also served as a consultant for the Nicholas Cage 2002 movie “Windtalkers,” about the Navajo Code Talkers. He was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by then-President George W. Bush in July 2001.
“He was really a humble person,” Avila said. “I go to all the family events and feel I’m part of everything.”