Chester Nez, the last of the “Original 29” Navajo Code Talkers who developed and implemented a top secret code that confounded the Japanese in World War II, died Wednesday at his home on Albuquerque’s West Side.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly on Wednesday issued a proclamation directing all flags on the Navajo Nation to be flown at half-staff in Nez’s honor from sunrise today until sunset Sunday.
The 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 – an important contribution that was a closely guarded secret for another 40 plus years.
In a White House ceremony on July 26, 2001, then-President George W. Bush presented Nez with a Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award. Though there were only a handful of the Original 29 on hand to receive the medals, all 29 received the honor. All other Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Silver Medal.
Nez, whose health had been deteriorating the past few years, was 93.
One of nine children, Nez was born at Cousin Brothers Trading Post on the Navajo Nation, about 15 miles southwest of Gallup. His family isn’t certain of his birth date, but government officials have set it at Jan. 23, 1921, according to his son, Mike Nez of Albuquerque.
Nez grew up at Chichiltah – which translates to “among the oaks” – on the Navajo reservation 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.
By the time he was 18, Nez had attended boarding schools in Fort Defiance, Ariz., Gallup and Tuba City, interspersed with “vacations” back home on the reservation.
“He was in the 10th grade at Tuba City Boarding School when the (Marine Corps) recruiters came to the school,” Mike Nez said in a 2011 interview. “They were specifically looking for Navajos. They (the students) didn’t know they would be Code Talkers when they were recruited.”
In 1942, Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran and non-Native American who grew up on the Navajo reservation and spoke fluent Navajo, proposed that the military base a secret code on the complex language. After demonstrating to the military that Navajos could quickly encode, transmit and decode an otherwise undecipherable three-line message in 20 seconds, the Marine Corps brass authorized the recruitment of Navajos to create and implement the code as soon as possible.
Nez and other new recruits were bused to Fort Defiance 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 in the 2011 interview. “It was kind of hard work, but it didn’t take us too long to develop the code.”
Day in and day out, the group worked on nothing but the code, Nez said. They first developed an alphabet using common Navajo words. For example, “A” became the Navajo word for “ant” or wolla-chee. “A” could also be bela-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.
Once the code was fully developed, it was taught to other Navajo recruits while Nez and his fellow Marines headed for the Pacific theater.
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 would switch, Nez said.
Nez left active duty in 1945 and went into the Marine Reserves until he was reactivated for the Korean conflict in 1951. 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.
Nez – who had 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 military 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 Navajo Code Talkers who served during the war became celebrities.
In April, Nez traveled to Quantico, Va., to attend the dedication of a Marine Corps building to the Navajo Code Talkers.
In 2012, 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. Until recently, Nez would attend book signings and pen his name in beautiful script, accompanied by a title only he could include – “Original 29.”
Services are pending with French Mortuary. Nez will be buried at Santa Fe National Cemetery, his son said Wednesday.
What others are saying
New Mexico politicos issued statements Wednesday regarding the passing of Chester Nez, the last living member of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers.
“Chester Nez and his fellow Code Talkers were also pressed into combat duty to brave the jungles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and countless other islands throughout the Pacific Theater. Throughout their lives they have shown what it means to be true patriots, leaving a legacy of service and sacrifice. We are proud of Chester Nez, and each of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. They changed the course of history, and will live on in our hearts forevermore.”
— Gov. Susana Martinez
“Like the code that helped win two world wars, Chester Nez’s commitment to the United States was unbroken. He loved his culture and his country, and when called, he fought to protect both. And because of his service, we enjoy freedoms that have stood the test of time. As we mark Chester’s passing, let us honor his memory with a renewed inspiration to preserve our Native languages, and rededicate ourselves to keeping alive the story of our Code Talkers and the patriotic spirit that has always run deep in New Mexico and our nation.”
— U.S. Sen. Tom Udall
“Chester Nez was a true American hero. His bravery and service will always be remembered. Chester, along with 28 other Navajo Code Talkers, used their Native language to develop what would become one of the most indispensable tools in World War II. Serving as a Marine at a young age, Chester’s love of country and his commitment to freedom never wavered — neither did his courage. Our nation is forever in his debt.”
— U.S. Sen Martin Heinrich
“Mr. Nez grew up at a time when speaking his native Navajo was prohibited and punished, yet it did not stop him from holding on to his culture and keeping his language alive. While Mr. Nez has been described as a traditionally modest and humble man who did not talk a lot, he always sought to preserve his language, and helped share the stories of the Code Talkers with younger generations of Navajos so they understand the importance of their language and are encouraged to learn it. While we are saddened by the loss of Chester Nez, we are inspired by his service to our nation and the efforts of all Navajo Code Talkers who played a critical role in World War II. We thank them for their service.”
— U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan