At 90, Chester Nez Keeps Alive the Story of Navajo Code Talkers
Click here for our feature story on the history of American Indian code talkers in the military.
Click here for our obituary on Navajo code talker and hero, Joe Morris Sr.
World War II ended 66 years ago, but the war is still fresh in Chester Nez’s mind.
Enemy soldiers haven’t attacked him in his dreams in several years, but he remembers the faces of the dead and dying on the shores of Guadalcanal. He remembers hearing the voices of enemy soldiers, the sound of bullets whizzing above his head. He remembers fear.
His mission was so important that he didn’t get leave for three years. His mission was so secret he couldn’t talk about it until 23 years after the war ended. Proper honor for what he did wouldn’t come for 55 years.
Nez was a Navajo code talker, the last survivor of the original 29 Navajo who developed the code that stymied Japanese forces and helped the U.S. military win the war in the Pacific. (Ultimately, there were 421 Navajo code talkers.)
Code talkers were sworn to secrecy even after the war in case the code had to be used again. And it was, in the Korean Conflict and again in the Vietnam War.
For the past decade, Nez has devoted his time to educating people about the work of the code talkers. Nez, now 90, signs his name Cpl. Chester Nez and wears his code talker uniform at public appearances. With his son, Mike, he has 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 says. “He wants them to know how they fought for their country. And he wants them to learn their language.”
Chester Nez shares his experiences in Code Talker, the only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers. The book, published by Berkley Books, is scheduled for release September 6. Working with writer Judith Schiess Avila, Nez wrote a gripping narrative, with clear and exceptional detail. “Artillery fire slices into the South Pacific waters, pock marking the crashing surf,” he writes. “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 writes. “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 their code, he 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, then Guam on July 21, 1944, then Peleliu and Angaur in September 1944. Throughout the war, the code transmitted between the Navajo code talkers—developed from an unwritten language spoken only by the Navajo—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, after he had earned enough points to be sent home.
In his book, Nez wrote about how his childhood experiences, as well as his Navajo 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 says. “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 out-performed our white peers.”
Like his fellow code talkers, Nez went to war carrying a medicine pouch with an arrowhead and corn pollen, wearing a uniform he had sent home to be blessed. He prayed daily. Those prayers took him back to his childhood home of Chichiltah, which means “among the oak trees.” In those prayers, he walked with his grandparents’ sheep.
On the battlefield, he sometimes could hear the bells of the sheep and knew people at home were praying for him. “I had noticed the bells before, usually around noon,” he wrote. “Even thousands of miles from home, in conditions I could never have imagined, it was comforting, the sound of the sheep and goats coming in. Even though I had not been able to attend, my family had performed a protection ceremony for me, a Blessing Way, after basic training. I felt sure they continued to pray for me and burned sage or chips of cedar, fanning the smoke over their bodies. Their prayers were carried across the miles as the pure, bright chime of the bells. The clear tones told me that I was still in good faith.”
Despite the horrors of war, Nez was proud to serve as a Marine, and proud that his language—which he had been forbidden to speak while in boarding school—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. Nez could only tell his family that he had served in combat.
After returning to the States, Nez was treated for what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. He then studied art at the University of Kansas, served again in the Marines in Hawaii and Idaho during the Korean Conflict, 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. Today, he lives in Albuquerque with his son Mike, daughter-in-law Rita, and their children. He has been slowed by diabetes but still attends signings for books about the code talkers, and he has kept in touch with other code talkers, among them his cousin, Robert Walley.
Avila met Nez in January 2007. “The first time I met him, I realized his was a story that needed to be told,” she says. “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?”
They recorded more than 80 hours of interviews for the raw material that was eventually turned into Code Talker. “He’s an eternally patient person—even when I asked him the same question he answered before. He’s extremely diligent about the things he does. He’s very patient and very courageous.”
He’s also humble. Nez is the last of the 29 original code talkers, but he wants the world to know what all of the code talkers accomplished, all that they sacrificed for the United States. “Most Marines and Army personnel never had a clue what the ‘coders’ were and what a major part they played in our war,” Marine Davey Baker, who worked with code talkers in World War II, says in Nez’s book. “If God alone may know, they saved thousands of American lives, yet their tale has been hidden by the very role they played.”
At 90, Cpl. Chester Nez continues to tell the story.