Code Talker Stories: Penned by a Daughter, With Love
The death of Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez, one of the original 29 who signed up to create the code that was indecipherable to the Japanese military during World War II, marked the end of an era.
Although prohibited from discussing their secret mission for nearly a quarter of a century, once Nez was allowed to talk about it he expressed pride that the Navajo language he had been forbidden to speak in boarding school (and had his mouth washed out with soap when he did) helped win the war. The only one of the original group to pen a memoir about those experiences, Nez passed on a legacy that will keep their stories alive. It is one of the few accounts out there.
The names of the deceased are piling up, as over the past year more than half a dozen Code Talkers have walked on.
Luckily Nez’s memoir is not the only account out there. Several of these code talkers come back to life in a book by one of their daughters. Drawing on her understanding of the spiritual importance of that language, Navajo poet and English teacher Laura Tohe, daughter of Code Talker Benson Tohe, has compiled an insightful oral history with many stories never previously told.
Nez and his 28 compatriots spent several months developing and memorizing a code glossary of several hundred words from Dine Bizaad—The People’s Language. It is well known that because the Dine language is more oral than written, the intercepted messages were incomprehensible to the skilled Japanese code breakers, and the improvised code proved impenetrable. The code was so successful that it was also used during the Korean War, as well as early in the Vietnam conflict.
“Our language is sacred and represents the part of life that is true,” confided Code Talker Dan Akee from Coal Mine, Arizona, when interviewed at age 87 for the book. “Our language saved a lot of people because it was used to make the code, and history.”
And despite the deaths of so many, they are just a fraction of those who eventually served, from various tribes.
“Of the estimated 432 Navajo Code Talkers, the greatest number coming from Arizona, no one knows how many are still living or where they live,” Tohe wrote in Code Talker Stories (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2012).
To research the book, Tohe established a close rapport with the interviewees as a daughter of one of their comrades who also spoke the language. Because she could do so, the soldiers opened up to her, providing more battlefield details and explaining more about how their lives had been affected and how those experiences had influenced them and their descendants.
“I was taught to know my clans and respect my elders, so I conducted my interviews in Dine bizaad, the native language,” she told ICTMN. “That made a big difference and opened up the storytelling process. They trusted me with their stories because I could help preserve them. So they provided more battlefield details as well as an explanation of how their lives were impacted and how those experiences affected them and their descendants. I treated each of them as I would my own grandfather and paid each with a gift card for gasoline or groceries—because a story is a gift that must be paid for.”
This rapport served her, and the book, well.
“It made a big difference that opened up the storytelling process," she wrote. "As these men told their stories in great detail, it made me realize that even though it had been a lot of years since the war ended, the men who had served this country did not forget the casualties and the cost of war.”
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