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Last of Original Group of Navajo Code Talkers Dies

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The last of the 29 Navajos who developed a code that stumped the Japanese during World War II has died.

Chester Nez, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, died Wednesday morning of kidney failure, said Judy Avila, who helped Nez write his memoirs. He was 93.

Before hundreds of men from the Navajo Nation became Code Talkers, 29 Navajos were recruited to develop the code based on the then-unwritten Navajo language. Nez was in 10th grade when he enlisted, keeping his decision a secret from his family and lying about his age, as did many others.

"It's one of the greatest parts of history that we used our own native language during World War II," Nez told The Associated Press in 2010. "We're very proud of it."

Nez has said he was concerned the code wouldn't work, but even the few Navajos who spoke the language couldn't understand the code. It proved impenetrable.

The Navajos trained in radio communications were walking copies of the code. Each message read aloud by a Code Talker was immediately destroyed.

"The Japanese did everything in their power to break the code but they never did," Nez said in 2010.

After World War II, Nez volunteered to serve two more years during the Korean War. He retired in 1974 after a 25-year career as a painter at the Veterans hospital in Albuquerque.

Nez was eager to tell his family about his role as a Code Talker, Avila said, but he couldn't. Their mission wasn't declassified until 1968.

The accolades came much later. The Code Talkers now are widely celebrated. The original group received Congressional Gold Medals in 2001, and a movie based on the Code Talkers was released the following year.

Despite having both legs partially amputated, confining him to a wheelchair, Avila said Nez loved to travel and tell his story.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Image: Chester Nez
This Oct. 3, 2009 photo shows Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez speaks at a book signing for "Navajo Weapon," in Albuquerque, N.M. Felicia Fonseca / AP

— The Associated Press