Last of the Code Talkers

Editor’s note: The American Legion interviewed Chester Nez, last of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, 10 days before he died.

As the Pacific theater of World War II darkened, the United States searched for ways to keep its military messages secret. The Japanese had broken every code. In so doing, they were exacting heavy damage in both troop numbers and morale.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, civilian Philip Johnston proposed using the little-known Navajo language to transmit confidential communications. Marine Corps officers were skeptical but gave the go-ahead to test the concept, a decision that proved instrumental for victory in the Pacific.

The incredibly precise Navajo language was an ideal way to mask a code. With elaborate syntax, grammar and tones, it could easily throw off a nonspeaker trying to listen in. Only about 30 non-Navajos understood the language at all, and it did not appear in books.

When the mission was declassified long after the war, the Japanese acknowledged the success of the Navajo Code Talkers. “If the Japanese Imperial Intelligence Team could have decoded the Navajo messages, the outcome of the battles on Saipan and Iwo Jima might have been different; the history of the Pacific war might have turned out completely different,” according to the Fuji Evening News in Tokyo.

Long before Marines famously planted a U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, actual Navajos had to be recruited to create and transmit the code.

“Either you want to go, or you don’t want to go. I said, ‘I’ll go,’” Chester Nez explained in his final interview, raising his hand for emphasis. His 2011 memoir, “Code Talker,” co-authored by Judith Avila, offers a firsthand window into this chapter of World War II history.

‘WE ARE WARRIORS’ The Marines selected Nez and 28 other young Navajo men to serve as the original 29 code talkers. They had never left their reservations in the southwestern United States except to attend boarding schools. Ironically, the strict English-only rule made possible their selection, as the Marines needed bilingual Navajos.

Life had been difficult but traditional growing up for Nez – whose clan name was Dibé Lizhiní, or Black Sheep – on the Checkerboard area of the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. The summers were brutally hot, winters brutally cold. Elders in his tight-knit family taught Nez and his siblings about the Navajo tradition of the “Right Way,” which he describes in his book as a “balance between individuals, but also between each person and his world.”

In 1941, the reservation’s slow, quiet tempo was a stark contrast to a world at war. Young Nez realized almost immediately that he’d be called upon. “Our country has joined the war,” he said in his book, recalling a conversation with his friend and future code talker Roy Begay. “I think the military will want us. We are warriors.”

When Nez and the others were recruited to be code talkers, they were not told of their future mission. After basic training, they were sent to a secured room at Camp Elliott, near San Diego, and given their assignment: create an unbreakable code using your native tongue.

Thus began the work of the all-Navajo 382nd Marine Platoon.

The men agreed to devise a twice-encrypted code, using an English word (usually a common word for an animal or plant) to represent each letter of English. Those words would then be translated into Navajo, and the Navajo word would represent the English letter. All subscribers to the “Right Way” belief, they created and executed flawless codes for Marine officers and were given the green light to expand the mission.

Nez and other Navajo Marines then went to Guadalcanal, where they landed on beaches, braved enemy fire and sent secret messages from the battlefield.

Using a walkie-talkie, one team member would send messages in Navajo to a code talker on the other end. “It is very, very dangerous when you are sending that code,” said 93-year-old Nez, who was a special guest at American Legion Memorial Day events in Kansas last May. “They are shooting at you, and you had to be like a jack rabbit.”

He easily recalled the first code he sent: “Beh-na-ali-tsosie   a-knah-as-donih   ah-toh   nish-na-jih-goh   dah-di-kad   ah-deel-tahi.” Translation: “Enemy machine gun nest on your right flank. Destroy.”

The code talkers were not just sending and translating messages with their 30-pound machines. They were in the heart of the battle, translating orders while finding cover.

“Bullets (were) flying all over,” Nez recalled. “Hand grenades, too. It’s a very difficult story to talk about. Some of my best friends got shot, shot down. It’s something that you never forget. Sometimes it almost makes you cry when you see a real close buddy get shot. I was very lucky to come through the combat.”

Faith played a major role for Nez and the others in battle. Once the families at home learned the young men were Marines, they prayed for them several times each day. Even overseas, the code talkers felt connected.

“Chester told me during our interviews that when he was in a battle, he could hear the sheep bells,” Avila says. “He could physically hear them. And so could the other men. And they knew that when they heard the sheep bells, they knew their families were praying for them.”

A PROUD NATION. Nez also served at Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu and Angaur, where he and the other code talkers continued to pass along secret messages, fight the enemy and long for home.

After Nez was discharged, he traveled to his serene homeland – a far cry from the jubilant homecomings in major cities that welcomed other troops home. He arrived in Gallup, N.M., by bus, then hitchhiked toward the reservation, where he reunited with his father, siblings and grandmother. (His mother died at a young age.)

But when Nez and other code talkers returned home, they could not tell anyone what they had done, in the event they would be called upon again. “Everything was strictly secret,” he said.

Finally in 1968, the silence was broken when the mission was declassified. “They (family members) were very, very excited, very proud that the Marines chose the Navajo as the code talker language,” Nez said.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a bill honoring the code talkers. The next year, President George W. Bush personally presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the survivors. Each accepted the medal and shook Bush’s hand – including Nez, who also saluted the commander in chief.

ALWAYS A MARINE. Nez lived his life with two mantras: the “Right Way” of the Navajo and the Marine Corps’ Semper Fidelis. He finished high school and later received a degree in fine arts from the University of Kansas. He served in the Korean War as a Marine Corps reservist before raising a family and working at the VA medical center in Albuquerque, N.M., where he retired in 1974.

The last of the original code talkers, Nez traveled with his grandson, Latham, and Avila to tout his memoir and share the group’s legacy. His last public event was sponsored by American Legion Frontenac Post 43 in Pittsburg, Kan., in May.

By that time, much of Nez’s physical strength was gone. The years had taken his hearing; diabetes had claimed both of his legs several years earlier. Even in his final days, however, his mind was as sharp as his character, which was shaped by his tribal and military families alike.

In Navajo, “always faithful” means that you love and support everything that America stands for, he said. “I am very proud to be one of those people who helped out during World War II.”

His pride was evident, and his voice noticeably rose and became clearer when he talked about today’s Marines. During the Legion’s interview, Nez gave a final order, in English:

“All you Marines out there, wherever you are: Come home in one piece. As Cpl. Chester Nez, I say to you guys that are out there: Semper Fidelis. Take care and come home.” 

Ten days after this interview, Nez died of kidney failure at his home in Albuquerque. Family members, the Navajo Hopi Honor Guard, Marine Corps representatives, veterans and others gathered at the city June 10 to pay their respects. After the funeral Mass, a 2-mile-long cortege proceeded 55 miles to the national cemetery in Santa Fe, where Nez was buried in Marine dress blues.

Henry Howard is deputy director of magazine operations for The American Legion.