13 November 2011
Albuquerque, N.M. — With gnarled fingers, Chester Nez
reverently opened the small box his son Mike had fetched
for him at their West Mesa home. Even at 90 years old,
Nez's face still beams as he proudly opens it.
not to touch the gold medal, Nez shares a secret.
other side it says, 'We used our language to defeat the
enemy,' and that's what we did," he said.
carefully puts the lid back on the box and hands it to
his son for safekeeping. Inside is a Congressional Gold
Medal — one of only 29 in existence — given to Nez by
then-President George W. Bush during a White House
ceremony July 26, 2001.
the "original 29" Navajo Code Talkers, the men who
developed and implemented the code that confounded the
Japanese during World War II and was never broken,
received the medals that day.
moment that speaks to the reverence Nez holds for his
country, instead of shaking the president's hand after
being handed the medal, he saluted Bush as his
ceremony took place, five of the "original 29" were
living. Today, only Nez remains.
always think about those guys I served with. I try to
remember what I did with those guys and how we fought
together," Nez, nearly deaf and reliant on a wheelchair
since losing the lower portion of both legs to diabetes,
said in an interview. "It made me very sorry when I
would hear that they had passed."
Nez, one of nine children in his family, was born at
Cousin Brothers Trading Post on the Navajo Nation, about
15 miles southwest of Gallup. His family isn't certain
of the date he was born, but government officials have
set it at Jan. 23, 1921.
up at Chichiltah — which translates to "among the oaks"
— where he tended the family's sheep herd and lived a
traditional Navajo boy's life until, at age 9, he was
sent to Tohatchi Boarding School.
most Indian boarding schools, the children were forced
to speak English and were punished when they were caught
talking their native Navajo. It was part of the federal
government's efforts to acculturate Native Americans.
time he was 18, Nez had attended boarding schools in
Fort Defiance, Gallup and Tuba City, interspersed with
"vacations" back home on the vast Navajo Reservation.
in the 10th grade at Tuba City Boarding School when the
recruiters came to the school," Mike Nez said. "They
were specifically looking for Navajos. They didn't know
they would be Code Talkers when they were recruited."
why he decided to join the Marines, Nez said he wasn't
sure, but he thought the military had to be better than
heard they were recruiting, so I thought I'd go along
and join the Marine Corps," Nez said.
recruits were bused to Fort Defiance, Ariz., and sworn
into the Corps in May 1942. From there they went to Camp
Pendleton in California for basic training, and then 29
of them were selected and assigned to the 382nd Platoon.
boot camp training was over they sent us to Camp
Elliott, and that's where we started doing the code,"
Nez said. "It was kind of hard work, but it didn't take
us too long to develop the code."
where he met fellow Navajo Marines like Allen Dale June,
Benjamin Cleveland, Jack Nez (no relation), his lifelong
friend, Roy L. Begay, and the rest of the "original 29".
and day out, the group worked on nothing but the code.
They first developed an alphabet using common Navajo
words. For example, "A'' became the Navajo word for
"ant" or wol-la-chee. "A'' could also be be-la-sana, the
Navajo word for "apple," or tse-nill for "ax." The use
of multiple words for a single letter helped make the
"I always think about those guys I served with. I
try to remember what I did with those guys and how
we fought together," Nez, nearly deaf and reliant on
a wheelchair since losing the lower portion of both
legs to diabetes, said in an interview. "It made me
very sorry when I would hear that they had passed."
code-makers also substituted familiar Navajo terms for
military terminology. For example, a submarine became an
iron fish, a tank became a tortoise and a grenade was a
Code Talker memorized the code through constant
repetition, not only at Camp Elliott but during breaks,
at night, during meals and on long ship voyages
throughout the Pacific.
Talkers worked in teams of two, one sending coded
messages by radio while the other cranked the radio's
internal generator and watched for the enemy or returned
fire. After a few hours, they'd switch, Nez said.
Navajo Code Talkers took part in every assault the
Marines conducted in the Pacific, sending thousands of
messages on Japanese troop movements and battlefield
tactics, directing artillery attacks and providing other
communications critical to the Allied victory.
their services were in such high demand, it was rare
that Code Talkers were allowed "rest and recreation"
leave like most other Marine troops. Instead, they were
pushed to the forefront of the island-hopping campaign
served at Guadalcanal, the largest island in the
southwestern Pacific's Solomon Island chain; Tarawa, a
chain of 24 small islands in the central Pacific; and
Peleliu, an island in the island nation of Palau.
frontline units, Nez's platoon saw plenty of action and
more than its share of war horrors. Hundreds of troops
were mowed down on the beaches as they disembarked from
landing boats to attack well-entrenched Japanese troops.
Because the Japanese were trained to locate the source
of radio transmissions, the Code Talker teams had to be
constantly on the move.
of Marines got killed or wounded," Nez said as he stared
across the living room. "A lot."
war ended, Nez spent several weeks at a military
hospital in San Francisco recovering from what was
called "battle fatigue," now known as post-traumatic
stress disorder or PTSD. He left active duty in 1945 and
went into the Marine Reserves until he was reactivated
for the Korean conflict in 1951.
the military in 1952 with the rank of corporal and soon
enrolled at Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan., now
known as Haskell Indian Nations University, where he
earned his GED and met his future wife, Ethel.
couple married in 1953 in St. Michaels, Ariz., and
raised three sons and a daughter. They eventually
divorced, and Ethel died of a heart attack in the early
1990s. Two of Nez's sons, Stanley and Ray, are deceased.
His daughter, Tyas, lives in Idaho. Nez now lives with
son Mike, Mike's wife, Rita, and their children.
who has a talent for drawing — worked as a painter at
the Raymond G. Murphy Veterans Affairs Medical Center
for 23 years before retiring in 1974. The walls of the
center's recreation building feature several of his
decades, none of Nez's family had any idea what he did
during the war, other than loose references to being a
Talkers were under strict orders to keep the code
secret, and were not allowed to reveal their true roles
in the war until the code was declassified in 1968. Once
that secret was made public, the roughly 400 Code
Talkers who served during the war became celebrities —
an occurrence Nez simply describes as "very surprising."
role was publicized even further with the 1982 release
of the big-budget Hollywood movie "Windtalkers," which
is based on the Navajo Code Talkers and their heroic
role in World War II.
the movie, and said it's "pretty realistic," though he
doubts his ranking noncommissioned officer would have
shot him if he were about to be captured in order to
protect the code.
film, he said, "made me remember a lot of things that
happened when we were there" while fighting in the
recently, a book titled "Code Talker," written by
Tijeras author Judith Schiess Avila, was released
chronicling Nez's life and the contributions of the Code
Talkers to the war effort.
he's able, Nez attends book signings and pens his name
in beautiful script, accompanied by a title only he can
include — "original 29".
Information from: Albuquerque Journal,