The language he once was punished for speaking in school became Chester Nez’s primary weapon in World War II. He was the last surviving Navajo Code Talker.
Before hundreds of men from the Navajo Nation became Code Talkers, Nez and 28 others were recruited to develop a code based on the then-unwritten Navajo language.
Locked in a room for 13 weeks, they came up with an initial glossary of more than 200 terms using Navajo words for red soil, war chief, braided hair and hummingbird, for example, and the first Navajo alphabet.
Nez grew up speaking only Navajo in Two Wells, New Mexico, on the eastern side of the Navajo Nation. He gained English as a second language while attending boarding school, where he had his mouth washed out with soap for speaking Navajo.
The dress uniforms caught his attention.
When a Marine recruiter came looking for young Navajos who were fluent in Navajo and English to serve in World War II, Nez said he told his roommate “let’s try it out.”
Nez was in 10th grade when he lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, not knowing he would become part of an elite group of Code Talkers.
About 250 Navajos showed up at Fort Defiance, then a U.S. Army base. But only 29 were selected to join the first all-Native American unit of Marines. They were inducted in May 1942 and became the 382nd Platoon tasked with developing the code.
He wondered in the beginning whether the code would work since the Japanese were skilled code breakers. The Japanese did everything in their power to break the code but they never did.
Few non-Navajos spoke the Navajo language, and even those who did couldn’t decipher the code.
It proved impenetrable. The Navajos trained in radio communications were walking copies of it. Each message read aloud by a Code Talker immediately was destroyed.
The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific, sending thousands of messages without error on Japanese troop movements and battlefield tactics.
At the time, Navajos weren’t even allowed to vote.
Once while running a message, Nez and his partner were mistaken for Japanese soldiers and were threatened at gunpoint until a Marine lieutenant cleared up the confusion. He was forbidden from saying he was a Code Talker.
After World War II, Nez volunteered to serve two more years during the Korean War.
For years, Nez’s family and friends knew only that he fought the Japanese during World War II. Nez was eager to tell his family more about his role as a Code Talker, Avila said, but he couldn’t. Their mission wasn’t declassified until 1968.
The accolades came much later.
The original group received Congressional Gold Medals in 2001 and Nez often joked about pawning his.
Code Talkers have appeared on television and at parades and they are routinely asked to speak to veterans groups and students. Nez threw the opening pitch at a 2004 Major League Baseball game and offered a blessing for the presidential campaign of John Kerry.
In 2012, Mr. Nez finally received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas, where he had abandoned his studies in fine arts decades ago after tuition assistance he received for his military service ran out.
Chester Nez measured the accuracy of the movie “Windtalkers,” based on the Code Talkers that came out the following year, at 78 percent and said the Navajo spoken by Adam Beach was hard to understand but “he tried his best.”
He retired in 1974 after a 25-year career as a painter at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque. His artwork featuring 12 Navajo holy people was on display at the hospital.
Nez never tired of telling the story to highlight his pride in having served his country and stress the importance of preserving the Navajo language. Despite having both legs partially amputated, confining him to a wheelchair, Avila said the humble Nez loved to travel and tell his story.
The 93-year-old died Wednesday morning, June 4, 2014, of kidney failure, said Judy Avila, who helped Nez write his memoirs. He was 93.
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, of New Mexico, praised Nez for his bravery and service to the United States in a statement Wednesday.
“He loved his culture and his country, and when called, he fought to protect both,” Udall said.
“And because of his service, we enjoy freedoms that have stood the test of time.”
The Navajo Code Talkers are celebrated on the Navajo Nation with a tribal holiday.
Ben Shelly, President of the Navajo Nation, ordered flags lowered across the reservation in honor of Nez from sunrise Thursday to sunset Sunday.
A public viewing is scheduled Monday evening in Albuquerque. A Mass is scheduled Tuesday in Albuquerque, with burial to follow at the Santa Fe National Cemetery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.