Most people know, of course, that Chester Nez was a World War II code talker—one of the original 29, in fact, who developed the code that stymied Japanese forces and helped win the war in the Pacific.
But to understand the true measure of the man, let’s consider the whole package.
As a child, he was sent to boarding school, where he was given a new name and was forbidden to speak his language. Then, with the U.S. looking for a way to confound its wartime enemies, he and 28 other Navajo men were recruited to create an unbreakable code, using the language they had been punished for speaking, a language that had been unwritten and was spoken only by the Navajo.
The mission was top secret. He couldn’t talk about it—not with other Marines with whom he served; not with his family, even after the war; not with the paper-pusher back home who, when Nez applied for a civilian ID card, smugly told the decorated war veteran that he still was not a full citizen of the U.S.
When a battle was over, Marines in their division got R&R while Nez and his fellow code talkers shipped off to another battlefield: Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu.
And yet, Nez and his fellow code talkers didn’t complain.
They were the beneficiaries of ceremonies performed to protect them physically, emotionally and spiritually (American History magazine reported in 2006 that there was “surprisingly little evidence of serious psychological problems or combat fatigue among the returning Navajo veterans.”) Their uniforms had been blessed before they left home. On the battlefield, they carried medicine pouches containing an arrowhead and corn pollen. They prayed every day.
Sometimes, on the battlefield, Nez could hear the bells of the sheep back home and knew people there were praying for him. Indeed, in Chichiltah, his family did pray for him. They burned sage or cedar chips and fanned the smoke over their bodies and, Nez wrote in his memoir, “Their prayers were carried across the miles as the pure, bright chime of the bells.”
The Way carried them through the endless battles and the constant threat and smell of death.
“They didn’t do it for the glory,” said Joe Price, whose namesake grandfather was a code talker. “They did it to defend their homeland—not just the United States, but the Navajo Nation.”
That was Chester Nez, whose remains were laid to rest with full military honors on June 10 at the national cemetery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He walked on at the age of 93 on June 4. He was the last of the 29 original code talkers; ultimately, the ranks of code talkers numbered 421.
“We will always be grateful for his sacrifice and brave service for our country, and more importantly, for his selfless actions to protect our people and the great Navajo Nation,” Navajo Nation Speaker Pro Tem LoRenzo Bates said of Nez, in a statement posted on the nation’s website.
“Like the code that helped win two world wars, Chester Nez’s commitment to the United States was unbroken,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, said after learning of Nez’s passing. “He loved his culture and his country, and when called, he fought to protect both. And because of his service, we enjoy freedoms that have stood the test of time.”
Rep. Ben Lujan, D-New Mexico, said, “While Mr. Nez has been described as a traditionally modest and humble man who did not talk a lot, he always sought to preserve his language, and helped share the stories of the code talkers with younger generations of Navajos so they understand the importance of their language and are encouraged to learn it. While we are saddened by the loss of Chester Nez, we are inspired by his service to our nation and the efforts of all Navajo code talkers who played a critical role in World War II.”
Writer Judith Schiess Avila met Nez in January 2007 “through the friend of a friend.” Their friendship grew and he shared his story with her. Captivated by his story, she asked Nez to let her help him write his biography.
“He kept saying to me, ‘What if it’s not interesting? I just did my duty,’” she said. “After thinking about it for a couple of days, he agreed to tell his story.”
In an earlier interview with ICTMN, Avila said, “I think it was hard for him to talk about himself. [During our interviews] he often stopped and reflected: Was he building himself up? Was he being fair to others? Was he being accurate?”
Avila recorded 80 hours of interviews with Nez. The 320-page book was completed in 2011 and purchased by Berkley Books four days after they hired an agent. Avila and Nez were not prepared for the reception.
“At our first book signing, I thought, oh, Lord, let 15 people come,” Avila said. The bookstore was overwhelmed, more than 500 people attended and the bookstore only had 150 books in stock. Code Talkerwas reprinted in 2012; as of this writing, it is out of stock on Amazon.com.
To Nez, the book served two important purposes. It tells the story about the code talkers, and it tells young Navajo people the importance of learning their language. In his later years, Nez and his son, Mike, visited colleges and schools across the country. “He wants young people to know what the code talkers did in World War II and wants them to be proud to be Navajo,” Mike said in a 2011 interview with ICTMN. “He wants them to know how they fought for their country. And he wants them to learn their language.”
The book also tells the story of a people who put the needs of a nation ahead of themselves—the nation that imprisoned their grandparents at Bosque Redondo, the nation that sent its children to boarding schools. The book is a lesson in forgiveness and love. It’s a testament to the strength and power of Navajo culture.
And so, people drove miles, sometimes hundreds of miles, to meet Nez at book events, to get his autograph and to thank him for what he and the other code talkers did. Some people told him the book changed their lives, Avila said.
In the summer of 2013, Avila and Nez were in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a book event, while eating breakfast in a restaurant a man in a cutoff T-shirt with long hair and tattoos walked over to Nez, knelt beside him, took his hand and started to cry. “Mr. Nez, I have to thank you for what you’ve done for our country,” Avila recalled him saying.
Readers were as captivated by the book’s gripping narrative as they were the humility of its author, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient who signed his name Cpl. Chester Nez and wore his code talker uniform at public appearances.
Working with Avila, Nez told his story in clear and exceptional detail. “Artillery fire slices into the South Pacific waters, pock marking the crashing surf,” he wrote. “With saltwater filling our boots and dragging against each step, Roy Begay and I force ourselves forward. We try to avoid the bodies and parts of bodies that float everywhere. But that’s impossible. Blood stains the tide washing onto the beach. Roy and I tote a TBX radio and a microphone. Headsets clamp over our ears, so we can’t hear the hiss as hot bullets hit Pacific waters. But we’ve heard that sound too many times before. Rifles remain slung over our shoulders, unused. Our job is to talk, not to shoot.”
Nez was recruited for the code-talker program after enlisting in the Marines shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. “I reminded myself that my Navajo people had always been warriors, protectors,” he wrote. “In that there was honor. I would concentrate on being a warrior, on protecting my homeland. Within hours, whether in harmony or not, I knew I would join my fellow Marines in the fight … ”
After several months spent developing the code, Nez and other code talkers were dispatched to the South Pacific. He landed on Guadalcanal on November 4, 1942, then joined the Battle of Bougainville in New Guinea on November 3, 1943, and then Guam on July 21, 1944, and then on to Peleliu and Angaur in September 1944. Throughout the war, the code transmitted between the Navajo code talkers confounded the Japanese. The code talkers were deemed so vital to the war effort that they did not get a leave for years; after one battlefield was secured, they were sent to another. Nez’s first real break from the war came in January 1945 when he had earned enough points to go home.
In his book, Nez wrote about how his childhood experiences, as well as his culture and faith, helped him get through the war. “His boarding school experience taught him to stay calm under pressure, to take a calm approach to life, to get it done one step at a time,” Avila said in a 2011 interview with ICTMN. “To go to boarding school, to not see your family for a long time, to have to camp out in the open and make your way back home, that was pretty tough for a little guy.”
Nez wrote, “The white man’s military had accepted us as tough Marines. Hardened by the rigors of life on the reservation … we often outperformed our white peers.”
Nez was proud to serve as a Marine and proud that his language helped win the war in the Pacific. “When I arrive home after this war, I told myself, my father will be happy to learn how the Navajo language helped the troops,” Nez wrote. “My family will be proud of my part in developing the top secret code. I just had to make it through, so I could see Chichiltah again.”
He made it back to Chichiltah, but for the rest of his father’s life, Nez’s real work as a code talker remained a secret. Until 1968, when the program was declassified, Nez could only tell his family that he had served in combat.
After returning to the States, Nez studied art at the University of Kansas, served again in the Marines in Hawaii and Idaho during the Korean War, got married, started a family, and began a career as an artist-painter at the VA hospital in Albuquerque. He was also an avid deer hunter and sportsman.
Nez retired in the mid-1970s and moved back to Chichiltah to help care for his sister, Dora. In his later years and until he walked on, he lived in Albuquerque with his son Mike, daughter-in-law Rita, and their children.
After Nez’s passing, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly ordered flags at half-staff. On behalf of the family, Avila was interviewed by the BBC, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times.
Avila called her friendship with Nez “a fabulous experience … He was truly a blessing to me. I miss him terribly.”
A throng of people went to the viewing at French Mortuary in Albuquerque on June 9 and celebrated Mass the following day at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. Then, at 1:30 p.m., under clear skies and a warm summer sun, crowds gathered at Santa Fe National Cemetery to say farewell to a humble man who loved his land, his country and his people.
Donations can be made to the Chester Nez Memorial Trust Fund at any Bank of America branch in the U.S. Funds will be used to defray funeral expenses.