Last Navajo Code Talker, Chester Nez, Has Died, Closing A Proud Chapter In U.S. History

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Flags across the Navajo Nation are currently lowered at half-mast in honor of the death of the last original Navajo Code Talker of World War II, Chester Nez. Nez was part of a group of 29 Navajos recruited by the United States Marines who developed a code based on their native language that stumped the Japanese during WWII. On Wednesday, Nez died in his home in Albuquerque, N.M. at the age of 93, closing a proud chapter in American history.

"We mourn his passing but honor and celebrate the indomitable spirit and dedication of those Marines who became known as the Navajo Code Talkers," the U.S. Marines said in a statement. "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 into the future."

Nez's history-making story comes from humble beginnings. He grew up in Two Wells, N.M., on the eastern side of the Navajo Nation. As he learned English in boarding school, his teacher would wash his mouth out with soap for speaking Navajo. Little did he know that his native tongue would help win a world war.

Nez was only in the 10th grade when he enlisted in the Marines with his boarding school roommate. The Marine recruiter was looking for young Navajos who were fluent in both Navajo and English, and Nez fit the bill perfectly. Though 250 Navajos tried to enlist, only 29 were selected for the first all-Native American unit of the Marines. They were inducted in 1942 and became the 38th Platoon of the U.S. Marine Corps.

As a tribute to Nez and the Navajo Code Talkers, here are five facts about this amazing group of soldiers.

1. The Navajo Language Was Chosen Because It's Nearly Impossible to Learn

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The U.S. military chose the Navajo language for the project because it is one of the most challenging languages for a non-Navajo speaker to learn. Its syntax and tonal qualities are incomparable, and it has no written form.

Each message sounded like a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words, but each word represented an English letter, and most letters were represented by more than one Navajo word. Hence the challenge in cracking the code.

2. Their Code Was Impenetrable, and the Japanese Never Succeeded in Cracking It

The Navajo Code Talkers spent 13 weeks in a room coming up with a dictionary of more than 200 terms using common Navajo words. They also studied radio communication and would communicate their coded messages that way. Each message was immediately destroyed after being read.

"In developing our code, we were careful to use everyday Navajo words, so that we could memorize and retain the words easily," Nez told CNN in an interview in 2011.

According to the U.S. Navy's website, the Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, admitted that they were never able to crack the Navajos' code even though they had successfully cracked codes by the U.S. Army.

3. They Had to Keep Their Project and Code Talker Status a Secret

The Code Talkers couldn't tell anyone — not their friends, their family, not even their fellow Marines — about their project and identities. Their classified status almost cost Nez his life when he and his partner were mistaken for Japanese soldiers and held at gunpoint. Luckily, another Marine was able to clear up the confusion.

Nez kept the secret for over two decades until the mission was declassified in 1968. Until then, his friends and family only had the vague knowledge that he had fought the Japanese in WWII, but nothing beyond that.

4. The Code Talkers Fought in the Trenches Alongside the Rest of the Marines

The Code Talkers participated in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific and sent thousands of messages on Japanese battlefield movements and tactics.

Nez described what it was like to be in the heart of the battle in his 2011 book Code Talker. "When bombs dropped, generally we code talkers couldn't just curl up in a shelter," Nez wrote. "We were almost always needed to transmit information, to ask for supplies and ammunition, and to communicate strategies. And after each transmission, to avoid Japanese fire, we had to move."

5. Nez and the Code Talkers Have Been Rewarded For Their Efforts

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The Code Talkers didn't risk their lives in vain, and nearly 60 years after the war they received their much deserved accolades. In 2001, the original 29 were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by then-president George W. Bush.

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