Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Code Talker by Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila

Code Talker is a memoir of one of the men who devised the Navajo code used to communicate during World War II. The code is described as the only unbroken code in modern warfare and is credited for helping assure victory in the South Pacific for the United States and its allies.
Although most of the book is devoted to the time spent by Chester Nez in the Marines and the South Pacific, it also covers his childhood and the years after he left the service. It includes some information on Navajo customs, revealed as they apply to the anecdotes told by Nez. Although the narrative touches on the horrors of the South Pacific battles during World War II, the descriptions are not graphic.
I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the code talkers. My father was a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II, and the efforts of the code talkers may have helped him survive. I was interested to read that Nez spent much of his time in the 3d Marine Division, the same as my father.
The descriptions of life as a Marine in the South Pacific are detailed and evocative. I really felt like I was on the beach, in the foxhole, or dodging enemy fire. Nez seems to be a positive, upbeat person. He touches on the racism Native Americans faced in the 1940s but doesn’t dwell on the matter or show any bitterness. One of the most interesting anecdotes was when he and a fellow code talker were loaned to the Army and two soldiers mistook them for Japanese soldiers (despite their Marine uniforms).
In an early chapter Nez discusses how the code was formed. The code was not simply normal spoken Navajo. Code words were used for letters of the alphabet and for military terms and equipment. I’ve never seen the movie Windtalkers but have read that it was not historically accurate and focused on white soldiers instead of the Navajo code talkers. The creation and use of the code is a topic that would make a great movie in the hands of the right people.
Code Talker was an easy book to read, and it moved along quickly. If you like reading about World War II or would like to learn more about this fascinating episode from Native American history, I definitely recommend Code Talker.

Note: The Galesburg Public Library book clubs will discuss Code Talker as part of this year’s Big Read. The Big Read title for 2014 is Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Discussions of Love Medicine will take place in April, and free copies of the book are available the library while supplies last. Stop by the library to pick one up and to learn more.

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