If Chester Nez dared to use his Navajo language in school, punishment was swift and literally distasteful. He had to scrub his tongue with a toothbrush and wash out his mouth with bitter soap.

Image: Chester Nez

So he was intrigued when recruiters from the U.S. Marines showed up in 1942 seeking young men like him who knew both English and Navajo.

That day, four months after Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Nez helped form an elite, top-secret group that became known as the Navajo code talkers. Using the Navajo language, they developed an unbreakable military communications code, then risked their lives on battlefields across the Pacific to send and decipher messages critical to America and its allies in World War II.

He didn’t have to volunteer; barred from voting, Native Americans were barely considered citizens. But Nez’s heritage spoke louder than decades of rejection. “I reminded myself that my Navajo people had always been warriors, protectors,” he wrote years later. “In that there was honor. I would concentrate on being a warrior, on protecting my homeland.”

Nez, the last of the original 29 code talkers, died Wednesday in Albuquerque. He was 93 and had kidney failure, said Judith Avila, who helped Nez write his 2011 memoir, “Code Talker.”

In 2001 he received the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest civilian honor, from President George W. Bush.

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