Chester Nez, the last of a group of Navajos who went to war as “Code Talkers”, has died at the age of 93. Nez lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His death is being called the end of an era by the Marine Corps. He joined the Marines as a young man in the 10th grade, lying about his age. He is the last of 29 men recruited to create a code based on the Navajo language.
Chester Nez recalled being recruited at the boarding school he was attending. He saw the mission as his chance to get out of there. Though many showed up at the recruiting station, only 29 were picked for the original group, Nez among them. The Marines recruited Navajos to create an unbreakable code because their language is almost impossible to learn. Along with syntax and tonal issues that are difficult for non-Navajos, until this point the Navajo language had never been written down. The Code talkers were deployed to the Pacific, where their codes baffled the Japanese, who had previously broken American codes. Nez saw action at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, and the Code Talkers were involved in every engagement the Marines fought in the Pacific. The Japanese never broke the code.
The code was based on common, everyday words in the Navajo language. This made it easy for the Code Talkers to memorize the code. Chester Nez said that Code Talkers could not hide when the bombs started falling, because they were the ones who had to relay the information needed to report to command. To do their jobs the best, they had to be out in the thick of things, and Nez was always proud of that. There was occasionally backlash from other, non-Navajo soldiers. Some attitudes was racist in nature, but mostly the soldiers did not understand what the Code Talkers were doing. Once the magnitude of their mission became clear, the non-Navajo soldiers were invested in the Code Talkers mission.
By the end of the war the Code Talkers numbered 300. Nez was discharged, but volunteered for two years of service during the Korean War. Nez was forbidden to talk about his time as a Code Talker until 1968. He went to worker as a painter for the Veteran’s Administration until 1974. Then, his mission was declassified. The Code Talker’s fame grew, and they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001. In 2002, director John Woo made Windtalkers, a dramatization of the Code Talker’s story starring Adam Beach as one of the Navajos and Nicholas Cage as a white soldier whose mission it is to protect the Code Talker. Chester Nez was pleased to see his story on the big screen. In 2012, he graduated from college.
Chester Nez, the last of the Navajo Code Talkers, died at the age of 93. He was proud to be able to serve his country, and was pleased with the attention his service brought to the Navajo people, though he wished his children had learned to speak Navajo. The Navajo nation’s flags will fly at half staff in his honor.
By Bryan Levy