Chester Nez


The Last Code Talker

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.
 
Careful not to touch the gold medal, Nez shares a secret.
 
“On the other side it says, ‘We used our language to defeat the enemy,’ 
and that’s what we did,” he said.
 

Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez, 90, poses at his home on Albuquerque’s 
West Mesa in this May 17 photo. He is the last living member of the U.S. 
Marine Corps 382nd Platoon, comprised of 29 Navajos who developed a secret 
code the Japanese were never able to decipher. (dean hanson/journal)
 
Nez 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.
 
Five of 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.
 
In a 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 commander-in-chief.
 
When the ceremony took place, five of the “original 29? were living. Today, 
only Nez remains.
 
“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.”
 
Chester 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.
 
He grew 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.
 
Like 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.
 
By the 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.
 
“He was 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.”
 
Starting the code
 
Asked why he decided to join the Marines, Nez said he wasn’t sure, but he 
thought the military had to be better than boarding school.
 
“I just heard they were recruiting, so I thought I’d go along and join the 
Marine Corps,” Nez said.
 
The new 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.
 
“After 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.”
 
That’s 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.”
 
Day in 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 code undecipherable.
 
The 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 potato.
 
Each 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.
 
The Code 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.
 
Pacific campaign
 
The 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.
 
Because 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 toward Japan.
 
Nez 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.
 
Like all 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.
 
“A lot of Marines got killed or wounded,” Nez said as he stared across the 
living room. “A lot.”
 
When the 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.
 
Life after military
 
He left 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.
 
The 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.
 
Nez — 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 
works.
 
For decades, none of Nez’s family had any idea what he did during the war, 
other than loose references to being a “radio man.”
 
All Code 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.”
 
Their 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.
 
Nez saw 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.
 
The film, he said, “made me remember a lot of things that happened when we 
were there” while fighting in the Pacific.
 
More 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.
 
When he’s able, Nez attends book signings and pens his name in beautiful 
script, accompanied by a title only he can include — “original 29.”



Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez: Telling a tale of bravery and ingenuity

WASHINGTON -- The 29 U.S. Marines dodged bullets at the front -- 
first in the Pacific and then in Germany -- passing top-secret 
messages to each other in a code that the enemy couldn’t crack.

The warriors, Navajo Code Talkers, relied on their their native 
language to develop the code, which helped to turn the course of 
World War II in the favor of the Allies. Of the original group, 
only one is still alive: Chester Nez.

On Nov. 9, the American Veterans Center honored Nez and six other 
veterans for bravery and valor above and beyond the call of duty 
during combat. Nez received the Audie Murphy Award for distinguished 
service in the military during World War II.

“I was very proud to say that the Japanese did everything in their 
power to break that code but they never did,” Nez said in an 
interview with Stars and Stripes the day before the award ceremony.

If the Code Talkers had been caught, he said, they would be tortured 
and their tongues cut out. They risked everything for the United 
States, even though they were raised in military boarding schools 
that prohibited them from speaking their native language.

Nez was raised at a time when the government required every Native 
American to have a census number and be accounted for. His grandson, 
Latham, described it as a “bad time” for Native Americans. Part of the 
effort involved taking children off reservations and putting them into 
boarding schools. Once there, children were forbidden to speak Navajo 
and were beaten or had their mouths washed out with soap if they were 
caught.

That didn’t stop them from whispering Navajo to each other in secret, 
said Latham Nez, who travels with his grandfather helping him tell his 
story. Their language, however, would serve the United States well later, 
in 1942, when Americans were dying in rising numbers overseas, especially 
in the Pacific. The Japanese seemed to know what the U.S. military was 
planning well before it took place.

That’s where the Code Talkers came in, recruited from boarding schools 
to join the Marines and use their unique skills to develop an unbreakable 
code to pass messages.

“Even some of our town tribe wouldn’t understand what we were talking 
about,” Nez said in the interview.

World War I veteran Philip Johnston, who came up with the idea to develop 
the Navajo Code in 1941, came to Nez’ boarding school to recruit. The 
volunteers went directly into basic training without any goodbyes. Nez 
left behind his sister Dora, his father and his beloved grandmother, 
who wouldn’t know he was fighting until two years after he left.

When the Code Talkers got out of the service, “they told us not to talk 
about what we did,” Nez said.

The Navajo men received no fanfare, and many struggled, said Judith 
Avila, who co-wrote Nez’s memoir “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir 
By One of the Original Talkers of WWII” and helped Nez during the Nov. 
8 interview.

Instead of people thanking them for their service, they faced 
discrimination and insults, she said. When Nez wore his Marine Corps 
uniform to register for his Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood -- 
required for all Native Americans -- the clerk told Nez he wasn’t a 
real citizen.

“I wish I had my .45 with me,” Nez recalled saying at the time, according 
to Avila, “because if I did, I would shoot you in the face.”

Without support, suffering from what most now know to be post-traumatic 
stress, many Code Talkers turned to alcohol and lived on the streets. 
There were about 420 Code Talkers that followed the original 29 into 
service. Of that group, about 30 are still alive.

Nez said he was one of the lucky ones. When he returned, he was embraced 
by his family. He got a job at the VA, which he kept until the 1970s.

Nez still has good memories of his time with the Marines, whom he said 
treated the Code Talkers very well. Latham Nez, who accompanied his 
grandfather to the awards, said the Marines saw the Navajo men as “damn 
good Marines” who were already warriors when they left for basic training.

A modest man, Nez doesn’t talk a lot. His grandson said that he was raised 
not to discuss his life, which made the book very special. It’s also what 
makes the Audie Murphy award so fantastic.

“His normal response was a big smile, and saying, ‘Good, good.’ I know 
deep down it’s the story that’s important (to him),” Latham Nez said.

Excerpts from the Navajo code

English Word         Navajo Word        Meaning 
Corps                Din-neh-ih         Clan 
Switchboard          Ya-ih-e-tih-ih     Central 
Dive Bomber          Gini Chicken       Hawk 
Torpedo Plane        Tas-chizzie        Swallow 
Observation Plane    Me-as-jah          Owl 
Fighter plane        Da-he-tih-hi       Humming Bird 
Bomber               Jay-sho            Buzzard 
Alaska               Beh-hga            With-Winter 
America              Ne-he-Mah          Our Mother 
Australia            Cha-yes-desi       Rolled Hat 
Germany              Besh-be-cha-he     Iron Hat 
Philippines          Ke-yah-da-na-lhe   Floating Land 

 

English Letter      Navajo Word         Meaning 
A                   Wol-la-chee         Ant 
B                   Shush               Bear 
C                   Moasi               Cat 
D                   Be                  Deer 
E                   Dzeh                Elk 
F                   Ma-e                Fox 
G                   Klizzie             Goat 
H                   Lin                 Horse 
I                   Tkin                Ice 
J                   Tkele-cho-gi        Jackass 
K                   Klizzie-yazzie      Kid 
L                   Dibeh-yazzie        Lamb 
M                   Na-as-tso-si        Mouse 
N                   Nesh-chee           Nut 
O                   Ne-ahs-jah          Owl 
P                   Bi-so-dih           Pig 
Q                   Ca-yeilth           Quiver 
R                   Gah                 Rabbit 
S                   Dibeh               Sheep 
T                   Than-zie            Turkey 
U                   No-da-ih            Ute 
V                   A-keh-di-glini      Victor 
W                   Gloe-ih             Weasel 
X                   Al-an-as-dzoh       Cross 
Y                   Tsah-as-zih         Yucca 
Z                   Besh-do-gliz        Zinc 

— National Archives



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