Memoir Review: Code Talker, by Chester Nez
Title: Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by one of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII
Author: Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila
Publication Info: Paperback: Dutton Caliber, 2011, 296 pages. Original hardcover, 2011, Berkley
Source: Purchased at the Grand Canyon!
Although more than 400 Navajos served in the military during World War II as top-secret code talkers, even those fighting shoulder to shoulder with them were not told of their covert function. And, after the war, the Navajos were forbidden to speak of their service until 1968, when the code was finally declassified. Of the original twenty-nine Navajo code talkers, only two are still alive. Chester Nez is one of them. [Note: this was true as off 2011].
In this memoir, the eighty-nine-year-old Nez chronicles both his war years and his life growing up on the Checkerboard Area of the Navajo Reservation-the hard life that gave him the strength, both physical and mental, to become a Marine. His story puts a living face on the legendary men who developed what is still the only unbroken code in modern warfare.
This memoir is both a gripping, well-paced read and still reads believably like Chester Nez's own voice. It is, in fact, written by Avila from tapes of Nez telling his own story. It is a credit to Avila that she listened well and, in the end, rewrote it in his voice and in the first person.
Much of this story was familiar to me: the practice, continued for far too long, of not only sending Native American children away to boarding school (in some ways, that part was practical), but of prohibiting their language and culture completely, with harsh punishments for speaking their language. I was also aware of the Code Talkers, in part thanks to Joseph Bruchec's novel of the same title (and, I believe, inspired by Chester Nez's story). What sets the book apart, of course, is the direct experience recounted.
I'm not sure I had processed just how the Code Talkers were used in the war--if asked, I probably would have said they were involved in the big picture. In fact, they were in muddy foxholes handling the real-time communications needed on the battle front. It's easy to see how an almost-instant coded communications system would be a huge advantage over the cumbersome codes otherwise in use by the military (how is something that can take an hour or two to encode, send, and decode even remotely useful in a battle?).
Nez offers a fascinating, if often understated, view of the battles of the Pacific islands. He saw more than his share: Code Talkers were too valuable to rotate them out of the front lines. The miracle isn't that almost all of them survived; it's that any of them did.
Read it. Particularly recommended for WWII buffs and anyone who wants to know and understand more of the history of the Navajo people and the United States. Also recommended for the rest of the people who don't think that's important.