On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, I thought I’d take a moment to honor all who sacrifice so that I can live my life as I choose where I choose, and not as others would dictate.
The honor I offer is represented by the spirit of a specific person who passed away this week. Chester Nez, the last of the original Code Talkers, died Wednesday at age 93. That group is probably more responsible for the allied victories in World War II (and other wars) than we will ever know.
The Navajo language tasted like soap to young Chester Nez. Chester’s mouth was washed out with soap when he spoke in his native language, instead of the preferred second language.
In May 1942, Nez and 28 other native Navajo became US Marines. They formed the original Code Talkers. Their mission: Create a Navajo-based code to pass classified allied messages during World War II. Make the code unbreakable, quickly translatable and 100% accurate. Memorize it, destroy the evidence, then start using it.
The Navajo language has no written form, so there is no need for alphabet or symbols. It is complex. A word may mean different things based on placement within a phrase or pronunciation. Meanings of words can change with different Navajo dialects. With no written language, the speaker owns the language. The way you speak is literally your language.
Navajo who spoke and understood native Navajo outside the Code Talkers could not decipher the wartime messages. The words made no sense without knowing the code that linked Navajo sounds with English words. A captured Navajo once admitted to not understanding any of the intercepted messages after being forced to try to translate for the Japanese.
Navajo code talkers worked non-stop for several days at the start of The Battle of Iwo Jima. Nearly 1,000 messages were sent. All were successfully translated. None was deciphered by the enemy. The Code Talkers at the start of the battle were critical to the raising of the American flag by fellow Marines and Naval corpsmen at the end of the battle.
Nez was a Marine before he and his people were allowed to vote in national elections. What did he do at the end of WWII? He volunteered to serve in the Korean War.
Nez dropped out of art school after his military service because of lack of funds. What did he do? He painted for the rest of his life, just as he would have done with an art degree.
What did he do after parts of both legs were amputated? He continued traveling and speaking about his love of his country and the Navajo nation. At age 93, future speaking dates and events were still on his calendar.
Nez chose to honor his Navajo language, culture and country, not shame or condemn. That takes the spirit of a warrior. Only a true warrior could boldly say he chose to join the Marines because he thought they had the prettiest uniforms.
Chester Nez will be buried at the Santa Fe New Mexico National Cemetery in a few days, but this is not the end of his journey. He has (not had) a warrior’s spirit.
We may want to consider walking the path of Chester and his fellow Code Talkers. It’s a path where honor, duty and pride in your country matter, even if you don’t get what you want from it.
I won’t try to put words in Chester Nez’s mouth, but if we listen, we may hear whispers of three things in our own native tongue:
1. Love your country and honor your heritage, regardless of where you were born, how you were raised, or how you and your people are treated and portrayed.
2. Be a warrior for a cause greater than yourself.
3. Live so someone – even one person – can say that something – even one thing – is better because of your time here.
I’ve read that the Navajo strive to live in harmony and balance with the Creator, nature and the individual. The Navajo believe that death exists so that others will have a chance to live. It’s not about leaving something for the next generation; it’s about leaving everything.
Mr. Nez, your spirit, and the spirits of the other Code Talkers, cleared a path for us to follow, but in true Navajo warrior tradition, you did not leave footprints.
How are we doing with our second chance he and others gave us?