Chester Nez was the last survivor of an original group of 29
Navajos recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps to create a code based on
their language that the Japanese could not crack.
His son, Michael Nez, said his father died peacefully in his sleep
at their home in Albuquerque.
"He had been battling kidney disease and it seems like the disease
won," Michael Nez told Reuters. "He's the last of a great era, a
great part of history."
About 400 code talkers would go on to use their unique battlefield
cipher to encrypt messages sent from field telephones and radios
throughout the Pacific theater during the war.
It was regarded as secure from Japanese military code breakers
because the language was spoken only in the U.S. Southwest, was
known by fewer than 30 non-Navajo people, and had no written form.
The Navajos' skill, speed and accuracy under fire in ferocious
battles from the Marshall Islands to Iwo Jima are credited with
saving thousands of U.S. servicemen's lives and helping shorten the
war. Their work was celebrated in the 2002 movie "Windtalkers."
The president of the Navajo Nation, Ben Shelly, said he had ordered
flags to be flown at half staff in memory of Nez. "It saddens me to
hear the last of the original code talkers has died," Shelly said.
"We are proud of these young men in defending the country they loved
using their Navajo language." The Marine Corps said in a statement
it mourned Nez's passing, but honored and celebrated "the
indomitable spirit and dedication" showed by him and his colleagues.
"The incredible bravery, dedicated service and sacrifices of Mr. Nez
and his fellow Code Talkers will forever remain part of the proud
legacy of our Corps and will continue to inspire generations of
Marines," the statement added.
Last November, the American Veterans Center honored Nez for bravery
and valor above and beyond the call of duty, awarding him the Audie
Murphy Award for distinguished service.
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"I was very proud to say that the Japanese did everything in their
power to break that code but they never did," Nez said in an
interview with the Stars and Stripes newspaper the day before
receiving the award.
Nez and his young fellow recruits were called communications
specialists by the Marines and were taught Morse code, semaphore and
"blinker," a system using lights to send messages between ships.
The code they developed substituted Navajo words for military terms.
CHAY-DA-GAHI, which translates to "turtle," came to mean a tank,
while a GINI, "chicken hawk" in English, became a dive bomber.
America was NE-HE-MAH, "our mother."
The code talkers, whose actions were recognized with the
Congressional Gold Medal in 2001, served in all six Marine divisions
and 13 were killed in World War Two.
Nez also volunteered to serve two more years during the Korean War.
He retired in 1974 after a 25-year career as a painter at the
Veterans Administration hospital in Albuquerque.
Shelly said the Navajo Nation was drafting a proclamation in honor
of Nez that it plans to present, along with the Navajo Nation flag,
to the code talker's relatives. Nez is expected to be buried at the
Santa Fe National Cemetery next week.
(Additional reporting and writing by Daniel Wallis in Denver;
Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bill Trott, and Peter Cooney)
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