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Navajo Language Was Basis of Uncrackable US World War II Code - 2002-06-15


This weekend some American moviegoers will get a lesson in history if they go to see Windtalkers.

The new movie is a fictional account of the Navajo code talkers who were instrumental in helping the Allies win the Second World War by creating a code based on their native language.

Chester Nez was a teenager attending boarding school on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, when Marines showed up on campus more than 60 years ago, looking for future code talkers.

"At that time I told my roommate, 'Let's go. Let's go and see what it looks like off the reservation.' That was back on May 4, 1942," he said.

Mister Nez said more than 200 Navajo men volunteered, but most were turned away because they were too old, or because they didn't speak English well enough. But Chester Nez was one of the 29 Navajo men who were selected to create the code.

"It took us six to seven months to develop the code. Some of the names of equipment were among the hardest things to decide. Take for example, a tank. What are we going to name a tank? We started talking about it. What does a tank look like? How does it move? And what is it used for?" he asked. "We came to the conclusion a turtle. In those days, the movement of the tank was real slow. "

The word for observation planes was the Navajo word for owl. Bombers were called buzzards; transport planes, eagles; and a submarine was described as an iron fish. The Navajos also came up with an alphabet code where, Mister Chester said, each of the 26 letters was represented by an animal, mineral, plant or other object.

"A is an ant. B is a bear. E is an elk. And some of these things we named for code are significant for my tribe. Like a bear. He is a grandfather in the traditional Indian way," he explained.

Once the code was created, other Navajos were recruited more than 300 in all - to join the 29 original code talkers. They memorized the code and were shipped out to the Pacific, where they provided communication for every major assault against Japan.

"The Japanese did everything in their power to try and break it down. Nobody did. It's never been broken. And I think that was one of the greatest things that ever happened for my tribe, the Navajo nation," he said.

Last year, President Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the five surviving members of the original 29 code talkers, including Chester Nez. Now with the new movie Windtalkers, Mr. Nez hopes more Americans will learn the story of Navajo code talkers.

"To me, the movie takes me back thousands of miles to the Pacific. Everything that happened is true. I look forward to some of my friends and relatives to see the movie and learn the true story," Mr. Nez said.