Code Talker – Book Review
Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII. Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 2011. 310 pages, 37 photographs, 5 maps. Hardback. $26.95
As one of the original 29 code talkers recruited into the US Marine Corps during World War II, Chester Nez’s story in Code Talker provides insights into how Navajo culture was able to uniquely provide the US with a cryptologic advantage in the Pacific War. Written in the first person, this is an autobiography about one man’s role in the great endeavor of World War II and how the code talker program came about. Although many books have been written about code talkers, this is a first from one of the original core team that created the unbreakable code. Chester Nez says he only did his duty and he was no hero; his actions make it clear that he is being modest.
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Along with his school roommate, Roy Begay, he volunteered for service after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His motivation was ingrained from his Navajo background to protect the land where he lived from enemies.
"Like other Navajos, we saw ourselves as inseparable from the earth we lived upon. And as protectors of what is sacred, we were both eager to defend our land."
The number of original code talkers actually should have been 33, as four active service Navajo Marines also were involved in the creation and design of the code. Because the Japanese had previously broken other US codes, the thought was to use the Navajo language as a basis for a new one; at the time, it was believed only 30 non-Navajo people in the world could speak the language. Nez details the recruitment process, basic training, and the work he and the other code talkers did to develop the code. It was not a simple matter of transmitting and speaking in Navajo; they had to develop a coded way to transmit information clearly and efficiently.
He recounts the humorous incident during training when the Navajo coded transmissions were heard over military radios and an alert was raised on the West Coast, believing that the Japanese had invaded and were transmitting information. The Marine Corps had to step in and indicate that it was their own men making those transmissions.
Nez describes his personal involvement in the development of the code, and he goes into detail about how they had to create words to match the English alphabet and for terminology that did not exist in Navajo culture. Some of the code words would not past political correctness scrutiny nowadays but the unambiguity of the words chosen was needed for efficiency. Thorough testing of the code was done before it was used, including double blind tests. Because of the need for accuracy, many Navajo speakers did not pass muster and could not join the program if they were not completely fluent in the language; slight intonation differences could change the meaning of a word or message, because of the sentence construction and tonal nature of the Navajo language. Keeping to this high standard, the code talkers were able to successfully provide the Marines with secure tactical communications from Guadalcanal to Okinawa.
The code was never broken. Even when the Japanese discovered it was based on the Navajo language, they could not decipher it, despite torturing captured Navajo servicemen. (None of the code talkers themselves were ever captured, despite being placed in combat situations and deploying and transmitting often under fire.) Of the over 300 code talkers that were ultimately trained and deployed in the Pacific Theater, 13 were killed. One of the original 29 code talkers, Harry Tsosie, was killed on Bougainville in a friendly fire incident. The danger did not abate, and bodyguards were assigned to watch over the code talkers during their work. Although Nez does not add any credence to the rumor that the bodyguard’s role was to kill him if he faced capture, he says that he himself would have preferred death to being captured and forced to disclose the code.
This book also delves into little known parts of Navajo history and the American government’s impact on Navajo culture from the original Long Walk instigated during the American Civil War, in which the Navajos were uprooted from their native lands in Arizona and forcibly moved to reservations in New Mexico, to the Second Long Walk (the Livestock Massacre of the 1920s and 1930s) when the Navajo herds of sheep and horses were forcibly culled and indiscriminately killed. Ostensibly done to reduce overgrazing and land erosion, this draconian measure seriously harmed the Navajo’s way of life because it affected their economic independence and cultural values. In some ways the economic impact is still present in the Checkerboard region of Arizona, where Nez’s younger sister, Dora, still lived in a house without electricity at the time of her death in 2008.
It is these personal moments that make this story more than just one about the code talkers. Nez describes his life after the war, family tragedies, and the sudden publicity that accompanied the declassification of the Navajo code in 1968. The recognition and fame were surprising to him because he felt no one doing his duty needs to be considered a hero. This graceful modesty is what carries through in this book and Nez perhaps understates his achievements.
The cover of Code Talker is a bit inaccurate. There is a wartime photo picture of Chester Nez, but juxtaposed with that photo is a picture of the Normandy landings and a British Firefly Sherman tank. Although other code talkers were present in the European Theater, Chester himself and the Navajo program were exclusive to the US Marines and the Pacific Theater.
Code Talker is an excellent book on the topic of the Navajo code talkers. It provides new insight into the development of the code and the Navajo cultural and historical background. The book includes a bibliography and the Final Dictionary of code words, as well as more than 30 personal photographs. This book will appeal to anyone looking for more background behind the code talker’s program through the experiences of one of its creators. Although Code Talker does not contain detailed battle experiences or tactical details of messages transmitted, it makes the story of the code talkers personal through the lens of one man’s experience.
Click here to read an exclusive Armchair General interview with Chester Nez and Judy Avila.
Tim Tow has studied the history of military intelligence and writes on technology and military affairs.