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Shining the light on heroes of WW II

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By Kirsten Laskey

They came up with an unbreakable code that helped end a world war and then they were cast into the shadows of the public’s consciousness, until now.

The Circle of Light Project and Mesa Public Library are shining the light on the Navajo Code Talkers in an exhibit, titled “Our Fathers, Our Grandfathers, Our Heroes ee The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II,” that opened last week.

To commemorate the event, Chester Naz, one of the original 29 code talkers, made an appearance at the opening reception, which was held May 3.

Chester said he served in the military from 1942-1945. During World War II, Chester said he was stationed all over the Pacific. Afterwards, he stayed in a hospital for six months, got his discharged papers and was sent home. “It took me a long time to get back on my feet,” he said.

However, Chester moved forward, he returned home to Kansas, finished high school and worked for a fine arts degree at the University of Kansas. He eventually returned to the reservation and helped his sister take care of sheep and livestock.

Later, he worked at VA hospital for 28 years and currently lives with his son, Michael.

When he was first discharged, Chester said he didn’t talk about the work he had done because it was classified.

When the information was declassified, “then I told my parents what we did during the war,” Chester said.

What the Code Talkers did, Michael explained, was take Navajo words for animals to mimic whatever they were referring to. For instance, a tank was assigned the Navajo word for turtle

The first 29 Code Talkers formed 29 words but eventually over 200 words were made, Michael said.

“I think a lot of people know what the code talkers did,” Chester said. “The Japanese never broke it and neither did the Germans. To me, I think this is one of the greatest stories ee (and) I would like people know what the code talkers did.”

It’s a story Chester said he likes to share. “I like people to know what we went through,” he said. “The Japanese never broke our code and the Germans never broke it. I’ve been to a lot of meetings and retelling my story – how we made the code in our own language.

“This is what I like to do,” Chester continued, “travel around and tell my story so people will understand how we used the code in our own language.”

It’s an accomplishment that Chester said he considers “one of the greatest things that happened to my tribe.”

He has shared his story with grade schools, high schools, trade schools and even presented his story at Harvard.

Spreading awareness of the Navajo Code Talkers, Michael said, is his father’s main objective. “Dad really likes sharing; that’s the main thing,” he said. “I’m just so proud of him.”

Michael explained it took awhile for his father to share what he did during the war, even after it became declassified. When the movie, “Wind Talkers,” was released, Chester decided to share his own story. “I guess he felt it was something that had to be done,” Michael said.

“I learned so much about him,” Michael added. He explained although he had known his father was in the Marines, he never knew he was a Code Talker.

Although Chester openly shares his experiences with others, the public light has not changed him. He is still humble, Michael said.

In addition to Chester, local author Nancy Bartlit, whose book, “Silent Voices,” addresses the Navajo Code Talkers, also spoke during the opening reception.

The exhibit, which is a traveling exhibit, started out as an oral history project by students at Wingate High School.

“We want people in general to know what the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II did ee this is their story,” curator Michele Prezy said.

The exhibit will be at Mesa Public Library through May 29.

Prezy explained the exhibit has traveled to Flagstaff, Ariz., been displayed public spaces, historical buildings and state monuments. It will end its tour in Silver City.