Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez was born “among the oak trees” in Chichiltah, N.M. He spent his childhood herding sheep for his grandmother before leaving the close-knit community to attend a boarding high school in Tuba City, Ariz. It was there that Nez learned about a secret Marine Corps mission that would take him far away from his people and into the battlefields of World War II.
In the early months of World War II, Japanese intelligence personnel broke every code the U.S. military produced. They were able to anticipate U.S. attacks, which cost countless American lives. The U.S. forces needed a better way to communicate — and fast.
The Navajo language, which was spoken almost exclusively by natives, had no written alphabet. This provided a possible solution to America’s dilemma. A Marine recruiter showed up at Nez’s boarding school and he and 28 other Navajos became the first Code Talkers.
“We first 29 Code Talkers designed a doubly-encrypted secret language using Navajo and English,” Nez said. “It became the only unbroken spoken code in modern warfare. Not even other Navajos could crack our code. Finally the Marines could plan strategic maneuvers without the enemy knowing every move.”
The code was so successful that the Corps recruited 400 more Navajo men to join as Code Talkers. During the war, Nez and the other Code Talkers’ primary mission was to receive and send encrypted messages. Even if they were being shot at, their focus was on sending the message, not firing back at the enemy.
“That could be pretty stressful,” Nez said. “But we did it.”
Nez fought on Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu and Angaur. When the other Marines were sent home on rest and recuperation, Nez and the Code Talkers were transferred to new divisions because their presence was critical to mission success. Nez fought with 1st, 2nd and 3rd Marine Divisions throughout the course of the war.
On top of nonstop action on the front lines, Nez was further weighed down by the gravity of the work he was doing.
“For me, the most difficult thing was worrying that I might make a mistake that cost the lives of my fellow Marines,” said Nez. “But thank goodness that never happened.”
Although Nez’s primary mission was in communicating the Navajo code, he wasn’t immune to the hazards of war.
“I was hit in the foot with shrapnel, but the doc just wrapped it up and said, ‘You can still fight, Chief,’” Nez said.
Nez continued to perform his classified duties until the end of the war in 1945. While other Marines returned home from the war to a hero’s welcome, the Code Talkers were unable to talk about their contributions due to the sensitive nature of their duties.
“We kept the code secret until 1968 — 23 years after the end of the war,” Nez said. “Many of the returning Code Talkers could not find jobs, but they knew they couldn’t tell the people interviewing them of the great things they had already accomplished as Marines. Too many of those men died within a few years of the war, penniless and without employment.”
Nez, however, was able to find a job doing maintenance and painting at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque. The hospital walls still portray Navajo Holy People, or Ye’ii, that Nez painted years ago. Nez was called back into the Corps to fight during the Korean War and finally left the service as a corporal. He married Ethel Pearl Catron and they raised six children together.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the original 29 Navajo men were recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal for their invaluable contributions that helped turn the tide of World War II. The other 400 Navajo men who followed received the Congressional Silver Medal. Unfortunately, by this time, most of the Code Talkers had already died. But the recognition these men received helped educate an American people who knew very little about the small group of Navajos who had changed U.S. history.
“I am glad that my country, in a time when Native Americans could not vote in Arizona and New Mexico, gave us Navajo men a chance to prove our dedication to saving our land and our people,” Nez said. “We are citizens of the U.S., and we love our country just as other citizens do.”
Nez hopes that the recognition they have finally received will inspire young Navajo and other youth alike.
“It is important that my people take pride in their heritage, especially the young people,” Nez said. “I hope that learning about the Code Talkers will help them to do that. It is also important that non-Navajos learn how a culture so different from theirs contributed to the U.S. victory in World War II.”
// By Lance Cpl. Jonathan Boynes
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