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Chester Nez

Native American who worked on ­war-time codes

Native American who worked on ­war-time codes

Born: January 23, 1921 Died: June 4, 4014

CHESTER Nez, who has died aged 93, was the last of the 29 Navajo Native Americans who developed an unbreakable code which helped win the Second World War. The so-called code talkers were able to use their native language, which had been banned in school as part of attempts to assimilate them into American life, as a code which the Japanese found impossible to break.

Mr Nez was immensely proud of his achievement, although the work of the code talkers was not declassified until the late 1960s. He was recruited while still at school when a Marine went to the Navajo reservation looking for young men who were fluent in Navajo and English.

On enlisting - he lied about his age so he could and kept it secret from his family - Mr Nez became part of the 382nd Platoon tasked with developing a code that could stump the Japanese. Hundreds of Navajos followed in the footsteps of the original code talkers.

"It's one of the greatest parts of history that we used our own native language during the Second World War," Mr Nez said. "We're very proud of it."

Of the 250 Navajos who turned up at Fort Defiance, Arizona - then a US Army base - 29 were selected to join the first all-Native American unit of Marines. They were inducted in May 1942.

Using Navajo words for red soil, war chief, clan, braided hair, beads, ant and hummingbird, for example, they came up with a glossary of more than 200 terms which was later expanded, and an alphabet.

Mr Nez said he was concerned that the code would not work. At the time, few non-Navajos spoke the language. Even Navajos could not understand the code. It proved impenetrable.

The Navajos trained in radio communications were walking copies of the code. Each message read aloud by a code talker was immediately destroyed. "The Japanese did everything in their power to break the code but they never did," Mr Nez said.

He was born one of nine children on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and grew up caring for his family's sheep before being sent to a government boarding school. The conditions there were difficult, his native language was banned and there were severe punishments if any of the boys were caught speaking it.

All that changed when the Marines turned up in 1942 and the language that had been a problem suddenly became an asset. The Japanese had been proving adept at breaking American codes, leading to heavy losses for US forces, and a solution had to be found. Once a small group of the Navajo students were selected, they were sent to a military camp to work on the code.

"After boot camp was over," said Mr Nez, "they sent us to Camp Elliott and that's where we started doing the code. It was kind of hard work, but it didn't take us too long to develop it."

After the Second World War, Mr Nez 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 Hospital in Albuquerque.

Judy Avila, who helped Mr Nez write his memoirs, said he was eager to tell his family about his role as a code talker but was not allowed to do so. Their mission was not declassified until 1968.

The accolades came later though and the code talkers are now widely celebrated. The original group received Congressional Gold Medals in 2001 and a film based on their lives was released the following year. They have appeared on television and in parades and were asked to speak to veterans groups and students. Mr Nez also threw the opening pitch at a 2004 Major League Baseball game and offered a blessing for the presidential campaign of John Kerry.

In 2012, he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Kansas, where he had abandoned his studies in fine arts after tuition assistance he received for his military service ran out.

Despite having both legs partially amputated, confining him to a wheelchair, he loved to travel and tell his story.

"He always wanted to go, he loved meeting people," said Ms Avila. "And with something like kidney failure, it comes really gradually. At the end, he was really tired."

Mr Nez, of Albuquerque, who died of kidney failure, is survived by a son and daughter. Two other sons and his former wife pre-deceased him.

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