During World War II, the capability of the Allied forces to decrypt a large number of messages sent via the Enigma machine was a significant breakthrough for intelligence organizations around the world. It is believed that this breakthrough shortened the war by as many as two years and saved many lives.
Another breakthrough in codes occurred at this time, but from a different perspective. Twenty-nine Navajo Marines developed a code from their native language that would stump cryptanalysts around the world. The code that the Navajo Code Talkers developed protected precious intelligence that could have lost the war for the Allied forces had it been broken.
CIA employee Glenn Nez had no idea that his father, Jack Nez, was one of the first 29 Code Talkers that helped develop the code.
The Shock of a Lifetime
Jack Nez never shared much about his experiences during World War II with his family.
“He showed us some pictures from a scrapbook that all soldiers take from wherever they’re stationed. We saw pictures of where he was on Wake Island, but he never told us what he did,” Glenn said.
The Navajo Code Talker program wasn’t declassified until 1968. Although Jack Nez passed away nine years later, he never shared his tales of being a code talker with his family. Glenn thinks the secrecy of the program kept his father from telling his family what role he played during the war.
“I got the impression not just from him, but from other Code Talkers, that they were very secretive about what they did,” Glenn said. “All we knew was that he was a radio operator, and technically, they were because they talked over the radio.”
Glenn Nez and his family didn’t find out about their father’s participation in the program until 2000, when Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed a bill to recognize the Code Talkers. The story was in newspapers nationwide. The family learned of Jack’s role when they recognized a picture of him in an article.
“We were in shock when we found out, but in a good way,” Glenn said. “We were very proud to know that he was involved with this bit of history.”
The Making of a Code Talker
Jack Nez was born in 1924 and grew up in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on a Navajo reservation. He was fluent in the Navajo language. Jack left the reservation to attend high school. He spent his college years studying to become an auto mechanic at Haskell University in Lawrence, Kansas. It was there that he met Glenn’s mother, LaVera, who was studying to become a nurse.
With the start of U.S. involvement in World War II, Jack decided to volunteer for the Marine Corps. He was 17. It was soon discovered that Jack could speak Navajo and he offered to participate in a special project involving the Navajo language. The group of Navajos was separated from the rest of the Marines and asked to develop a code. Jack served in the Pacific Islands from January 1943 to August 1944.
The life of a code talker was exciting and, at times, dangerous. The Code Talkers worked in pairs—one on the frontlines and one behind the lines—and communicated over the radio and telephone. There were no code manuals. The Code Talkers had to memorize everything in order to minimize the risk of the enemy breaking the code.
On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented the Nez family, as well as other Code Talkers and their families, with the Congressional Gold Medal. This award, as well as some of Jack’s other medals, are on display at CIA Headquarters.
“With an award of such honor, you can’t just put it in a safety deposit box and keep it at home,” Glenn said. “It’s something that you have to share with everybody. If it weren’t for those men, I don’t think this world would be the way it is.”
Following in His Footsteps
Glenn and most of his siblings have gone on to serve in the military or the government. In fact, Glenn’s job has an eerie similarity to his father’s duty as a code talker during World War II. He serves as a support administrator to the language school.
“My father would be very proud of how we’ve carried on in his name and example,” Glenn said. “We’re all very proud of our country.”‘