The last of the Navajo “Code Talkers,” who helped the United States create a code that thwarted Japanese efforts during World War II, has passed away.
Chester Nez of Albuquerque, New Mexico, died Wednesday at the age of 93 from kidney failure, according to the Associated Press.
Nez was one of 29 Navajos who helped the country develop a secret code based on his native language, which was unwritten at that time. The men were part of an all-Native American unit of the Marines that helped transmit messages in the code during the war.
The code the unit developed was never broken by the Japanese, but the Navajos weren’t hailed as heroes until well after the war ended. The AP reported that Nez wanted to tell his family about his role as a Code Talker, but the mission wasn’t declassified until the late 1960s.
He spent his life after World War II working as a painter at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque, according to the AP. He also served for two years in the Korean War.
Years after their service, the Code Talkers’ role in helping the United States win the war was finally recognized. The men were honored with Congressional Gold Medals, the country’s highest civilian honor, in 2001, and even served as the subject of a Nicolas Cage movie a year later.
Here, Nez talks about his memoir, which details some of his experiences during the war:
Last month Fusion’s Jorge Ramos interviewed two surviving members of the Borinqueneers, another segregated unit during World War II.
The Borinqueneers, a segregated Puerto Rican U.S. Army regiment, have waited years to be recognized for their service to the United States. Congress recently passed a bill to award the men Congressional Gold Medals and President Obama is expected to sign the proposal into law shortly.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.