Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 3 Jul 2012
Full Title: Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII
A few years ago, I had checked out Native American Code Talker in World War II to learn a bit about the history of the use of a code developed from the Navajo language. It was not until very recently when I picked up Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila's Code Talker that I revisited this topic. Seeing the book's marketing tag line that it was the only memoir of one of the original code talkers, I simply could not resist.
When at school, Chester Nez and his fellow Native American students were punished for speaking their native tongues, for that they were being assimilated into mainstream America. As a United States Marine, however, the attitude of the American government toward the Nez's native tongue, Navajo, turned completely around, as it was theorized, that a code developed from the Navajo language would be extremely difficult for the enemy to crack. As one of the original small group of Navajo men recruited for this very specific purpose, Nez shared the credit of such a creation. Although the Japanese would later correctly conclude that the new code that the Americans were using was based on the unwritten Navajo language, Japan would not be able to crack the code before the war ended. The author Avila put together this biography of Nez after hours of interviews, devoting as much attention to his life prior and after the war as the war experiences, providing a comprehensive first-person account of a code talker that linked his background with his war time service and with his return to civilian life. The fact that the Navajo code remained classified for decades to come meant Nez and his fellow code talkers' achievements would be untold and unappreciated for an extended amount of time. Once made public, however, the code talkers were showered with decorations. Avila presented Nez as a humble person who, while acknowledging his successes and accepting recognition, viewed his war time exploits only as the fulfillment of his given duty. Significant portions of the book could also be described as an introduction to Navajo culture; though a diversion to me, whose primary interest was Nez's war time experience, I found this to be an extremely interesting information nevertheless. Avila's writing was simple and straight forward, thus making this biography of Nez suitable even for casual readers and younger readers. She was definitely not a military writer, however, as betrayed by several unimportant misuse of military jargon that would stick out like a sore thumb to pickier readers; the reference to "drill sergeants" (as opposed to "drill instructors") and "guns" (as opposed to "rifles"), for example, probably would make fellow United States Marines raise their eyebrows.
I had reviewed this title in its audio book format, read by David Colacci. Colacci did a good job with pace and clarity. He had applied an accent that was recognized by me, who admittedly understood little about Native Americans, as a stereotypical Native American accent; I would like to learn whether this character voice employed by the reader was true to what a typical Navajo would sound like when speaking English. The audio book contained an interview at the end that I considered a gem. The interview was marketed as an interview with Nez, but I was soon disappointed as it was much more so an interview with the author Avila, with Nez present as a guest. I still enjoyed the interview, however, as I was given the chance to listen to Nez speak a short message in Navajo code at the start of the interview; although Nez's speech slurred a bit, probably due to his age, I was glad to know that this piece of history was recorded for posterity and that I had stumbled upon it through this title.
I had enjoyed Code Talker greatly, and would recommend this biography to those interested in the Navajo code as well as to those with passing interest in Native American, particularly Navajo, language and culture.
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Chiang Kaishek, 31 Jul 1937