For the last of the group of Navajo men who created a code that confounded the Japanese in World War II, "baa hane' yée éí t'áá kódiíji' bíighah silíí"—"his life story ends here"—fellow Navajo veterans say. Chester Nez, 93, who has died of kidney failure at his home in Albuquerque, was one of 29 men recruited for the Marine Corps' all-Navajo 382nd Platoon in 1942, the Arizona Republic reports. The "Code Talkers" used their native language, only spoken by a handful of non-Navajo at the time, to create a code the Japanese found impossible to crack. There were around 400 Code Talkers by the end of the war. Their mission remained classified until 1968, but survivors received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001 and their work was dramatized in the 2002 movie Windtalkers.
The code the men created matched Navajo words to military words, using turtle for "tank" and chicken hawk for "dive bomber," the BBC explains. Nez, who grew up in a family of shepherds in New Mexico, was still a teenager when he signed up and was sent to Guadalcanal. "When bombs dropped, generally we Code Talkers couldn't just curl up in a shelter," he recalled in his memoir, Code Talker. "We were almost always needed to transmit information, to ask for supplies and ammunition, and to communicate strategies. And after each transmission, to avoid Japanese fire, we had to move." The president of the Navajo nation has ordered flags to be flown at half-mast. "It saddens me to hear the last of the original Code Talkers has died," he tells Reuters. "We are proud of these young men in defending the country they loved using their Navajo language."