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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.
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