Code Talkers

On a flight from Albuquerque in August 2013, my husband Carl struck up a conversation with Robert. Both men served in the Marines during the Vietnam War. I asked Robert, who lived in New Mexico, about the Navajo Code Talkers, who fought during World War II. During a visit to the Balloon Fiesta there in 2006, we met the Code Talkers in Albuquerque’s Old Town. They were selling and autographing copies of their book[M1]. We spoke with one Code Talker's grandson, who was trying to capture as many of their stories and histories as possible while they were still alive. As my husband asked each to sign the book we bought, he shook each hand, thanked them for their service, and said "Semper Fi." I was struck by the contrast between him and them. Carl was from a different part of the country, with a different background, from a different generation, and he had fought in a different war. Yet there were ties that bound them. Robert told us there was only one of the Navajo Code Talkers still living.

This past June, the last of the Code Talkers, Chester Nez, died at his son’s home in Albuquerque. Four months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Mr. Nez helped form an elite, top-secret group, the Navajo Code Talkers. Using their native language, they developed an unbreakable military communications code to send and decipher messages critical to the U.S. and its allies in World War II. The interesting thing is that Mr. Nez was sent to a government boarding school by his single father who was struggling to raise five children. His father hoped he’d learn English and other skills that might help him succeed among whites. If Mr. Nez dared to speak his native language at the government school, he was punished. Ironic!

It was after boot camp that Mr. Nez and his fellow Marines learned the nature of their assignment. The Japanese had broken every code used by the Allies. The Navajo language was proposed as the basis for a new code. The language had no written form, used complicated syntax, and had unusual tonal features, all of which added to its complexity and made the code difficult to break. It was a success. Messages were translated and deciphered in 20 seconds by the Navajo Code Talkers rather than the 30 minutes that other systems required. They encrypted, relayed, and deciphered messages about strategy, casualties, supplies, and enemy positions. They participated in key battles of the South Pacific, including Bougainville, Cape Gloucester, New Britain, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima.

After their discharge, the Navajo Code Talkers were forbidden to talk about the nature of their service until their mission was declassified in 1968. (No wonder I never learned about it in school!) Because of this secrecy, many had had a difficult time finding jobs when they returned to civilian life because they could not tell prospective employers what they had done during the war. Mr. Nez was lucky -- he was able to get a job at the VA hospital in Albuquerque.

Each Veterans Day should be a time when Americans stop and remember the brave men and women who have risked their lives for our country. Today we have veterans from new wars and conflicts. It's important to honor them and help them with their transition back into civilian life. Last week our guest blogger, Neal Henderson, wrote about why hiring a veteran is a sound business investment. You can read his blog on our website at and at Let’s honor all veterans for their service. More important, let’s honor those who are now returning to civilian life with jobs.
[M1]Should we include the name of the book?

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