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Chester Nez: Navajo Code Talker & Marine

Chester Nez, a Navajo, was recruited by the Marines in 1942. He was one of 29 Navajos who were brought into the military for the express purpose of creating an unbreakable code. The Japanese masterfully deciphered most codes the U.S. tried, so the Navajo Code Talkers were essential to America’s eventual victory.

The Navajo Code Talkers fought throughout the South Pacific, providing communications throughout the fiercest fighting.

At the end of World War II, the military classified all the work of the Code Talkers. The code had not yet been broken, and Americans felt it might be needed again.

Just over 400 Navajos served in this valuable role, but most never received acclaim for their work as it was not declassified until 1968. Since it was released in the late 1960s when anti-government fervor was at its height, little attention was paid to the news story.

In the late 1970s and ‘80s, the men finally began receiving due recognition. Many of the Code Talkers did not live to enjoy the praise the men received for their job well done. 

Chester Nez (1921-2014) was among the fortunate. He was part of the original 29 Navajos who created the code, and he lived to be recognized for what he did for his country. His story is well-told in Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, co-authored with Judith Schiess Avila.

Nez Childhood

Chester Nez was born in Chichiltah, New Mexico. He grew up on the Navajo reservation in an area known as the Checkerboard. His mother died when he was very young. He and his siblings lived with their grandparents and helped on their farm where they raised goats and sheep.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs felt the best way to assimilate Native Americans was to remove the children from their family homes and put them in boarding schools. Chester (who received this name only upon entering boarding school) and his older brother and sister, Dora, attended schools in New Mexico and Arizona. The students were instructed not to talk in their native language. If they were caught doing so, they were beaten or their mouths were washed out with bitter soap.

The Nez children relished the summer breaks when they could finally go home and be with their loved ones.

Marine Recruiter

Nez attended high school in Tuba City, Arizona. It was 1942, and a U.S. Marine recruiter arrived at the high school with a specific goal in mind. The Marines wanted to sign up young men who were fluent in English and Navajo. Nez’s family still spoke their native language at home, so Chester Nez was an excellent candidate.

The Navajo people believe strongly in defending one’s country, so Nez also felt good about signing up. It was the right thing to do.

The Marines

Like all Marines, the 30 young men recruited for the special unit were sent off to basic training. They were told that they would be part of the communications team in the South Pacific. They were instructed in Morse code, radio communications, and signal corps work.  After boot camp, they traveled to Camp Elliott in San Diego where they received their specific assignment.

The Japanese had proven adept at cracking all the codes that the military had used. The job of the Navajo soldiers was to create a secret code based on their native language.

The officer stressed the importance of their work. The code needed to be robust enough to use in battle, and the men needed to keep in mind that the messages sent would make the difference between life and death. Anything from troop locations to calls for ammunition, food, or medical equipment might be conveyed over the radio waves. Could the Navajo men come up with something that would work?

Idea for Code

Toward the end of World War I, communication by Native Americans was used. The Choctaw Telephone Squad successfully relayed messages in their own language. No code was created, but the Axis countries did not have time to divine or translate the language being used.   

Guadalcanal

The idea for turning to the Navajo people for a code came from a fellow named Philip Johnston. Johnston grew up on a Navajo reservation where his parents were missionaries. Though Johnston lived among the Navajos and spoke a bit of their language, he knew that those who were not raised as Navajos were unlikely to master it. Navajo was also a purely oral language so there were no books or guides to help an outsider learn. 

Johnston convinced the Marines that if the Navajo people created a code using their language it would be uncrackable.

Creating the Navajo Code

Thirty men were recruited to create the code, but by the time they gathered in a meeting room at Camp Elliott, there were only 29. (Later on, the Original 29 became a term of reference for those who created it.) As the men worked over a period of several weeks, they saw they would be best served by creating a two-layered code.

The first layer involved the English alphabet. Two Navajo words were assigned to each of the 26 letters. The Navajo language relies heavily on various tones, so the tiny refinements in their work made a huge difference.

The second layer of the code concerned specific military terms. To speed their translations, they created special words for references to officers and terms for equipment that was used: “Battleship” was “lot-so” which means “whale;’ “submarine” was “besh-lo” which meant “iron fish,” and “destroyer” was “ca-lo” (“shark”) 

The Code Talkers needed to know this information better their own names. On a battlefield there was no time for anything other than an immediate reaction and the resulting translation. 

Those who heard the code and knew something about the Navajo language said that it ultimately sounded very little like Navajo.

Code Talker Methodology

The technology for sending codes at that time made use of TBX radio (a portable HF transmitter-receiver that at that time was powered by a hand-cranked generator).

TBX Radio

The Code Talkers worked in pairs. All Navajos had to be adept at sending and receiving the codes; there was no room for error. One cranked the generator and oversaw use of the radio; the other translated and sent codes. Both jobs were exhausting in different ways, so they switched positions at regular intervals.

Once in place, the Code Talkers worked round the clock—often continuing for 35 hours without a break.

Testing the Code

Not everyone who heard about the program thought it was a good idea, so a test was devised. The code that was used in the South Pacific during that time was known as the Shackle protocol. Communication specialists would feed a message into a coding machine where it was encrypted into a series of numbers and letters. This string of characters was then transmitted verbally where the soldier on the receiving end would use a cipher to decode it. This process was slow and laborious, and most messages took about 4 hours to send and receive.

For the test, the message was given to both the soldier handling the Shackle protocol as well as the Navajo Code Talkers. The Shackle protocol transmitted the message in several hours. The Navajo Code Talkers passed the message in a matter of minutes. 

There was no question of their value in the war. The Marines couldn’t wait to get them overseas, and their first assignment was at Guadalcanal. 

Guadalcanal

The Code Talkers first exposure to fighting was overwhelming. The American military needed the island for a base from which to attack the Japanese. The fighting began in early August of 1942. Three major land battles, seven naval battles and numerous bombing, from American planes finally convinced the Japanese that the area would be taken by the Americans. As a native tribe, they believed in not walking among the dead. At Guadalcanal, it couldn’t be avoided.

In December, the Japanese abandoned their attempts to maintain control of the island, but they did not fully evacuate until February.

While fear of death was ever-present, the Code Talkers soon found that fighting in the South Pacific also meant constant discomfort. They often waited in foxholes that filled with water. As Nez wrote: “Nothing ever dried.” Any soldier can testify that wet socks lead to wet feet and that trench foot can be very serious.

After the teams were in field for a time, the Marines assigned a bodyguard for each man. The Code Talkers never really thought about why they had someone with them at all times (even going to the latrine), but as Nez later said, “They could replace a soldier more easily than a Code Talker.”

Messages Sent

The messages sent by the Code Talkers was specific as to locations and often reported on quantities, numbers, and supplies of the Japanese. While the Japanese were unsuccessful at breaking the code, they could pinpoint where messages were coming from, so the Code Talkers would send a message and then quickly move locations in order to avoid being bombed. It was a dangerous job.

Nez notes that the feeling among Marines was one of bonding. Those who served near each other knew that they were all in this together. There was camaraderie, and all the men helped each other out.

One thing their white counterparts couldn’t help the Code Talkers with, however, was badly needed time off. When the regular Marine units were finally sent off for a week or two of rest and recuperation, officers plucked Code Talkers out of the line up waiting for departure. They were informed them that they were vital in the field and would not be given leave. The physical nature and mental intensity of their work must have made it so difficult to keep going.

Secret Even on the Battlefield

Though the Marines that worked near the Navajos saw that they were assigned to communications, the broader group of Marines had no idea who they were or what they did. 

Nez tells a story of a time when he and his partner were stopped by a white Marine. He assumed their different color of skin meant they were actually Japanese, and he pulled his gun and threatened them. Because Nez and his companion could not talk of their responsibilities, they had no way to defend themselves. Fortunately, an officer who knew the Code Talkers came by and told the white Marine to stand down.

Nez Tour of Duty Ends

The Marines used a point system to keep track of the terms of service for Code Talkers. Nez fought through Bougainville, Guam, Angaur (where the Code Talkers were assigned to the Army), and finally to the very difficult battle at Peleliu.

When they landed on Iwo Jima, Nez and four other code talkers were told they earned enough points to go home. 

Nez had no physical injuries, but like many of the soldiers coming home from the South Pacific, he suffered combat stress. The trauma for Code Talkers was compounded by the fact that their work was classified. They were not permitted to talk about it with anyone, even family members.

After five months in San Francisco, Nez boarded a bus to Albuquerque. He knew he could stay with his brother for a time.

Once back in New Mexico, an early order of business was applying for an identity card that Native Americans were required to carry. In a story reported in his obituary in The York Times, Nez arrived at the Federal Building in Gallup to register for the card. The civil servant told him: “You’re not a full citizen of the United States, you know.”  

Until 1948, New Mexico did not grant the vote to Native Americans.

Until 1948, New Mexico did not grant the vote to Native Americans.

The G.I. Bill

Chester Nez was eligible for the G.I Bill. He left for the military before receiving his high school diploma. Once he returned and finished high school, he entered the University of Kansas where he studied for three years. The G.I. funds ran out at that point, so he was not able to complete his senior year. (In 2012, the University awarded him an honorary degree.) 

He got a job working on the painting crew for the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque. While much of the work was basic painting, the buildings department soon noted Nez’s artistic ability and had him add murals to many of the walls.

To add to his income, he signed up for the Reserves. When the United States entered to Korean War, he was called upon to serve. He was relieved when his assignments were all stateside.

Family Life

Chester Nez married and had several children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.

Nez was still suffering bad dreams and other disturbances from what is now known to be post-traumatic stress disorder. His father recommended they organize a traditional healing ceremony to help him overcome the nightmares and fears that overtook him.

For Nez, this native tradition was a successful remedy. In his book, however, he notes that many code talkers turned to drinking or suicide—they had little support for what they had been through.

Code Talkers Declassified

In 1968, the government finally declassified the Code Talker program. By this time, computers were quite adept at creating codes. 

Navajo Code Talker Memorial
Navajo Code Talker Memorial, Window Rock, Arizona

But 1968 was during the build-up of anti-war and anti-government sentiment, so little acknowledgment was given to the Code Talkers or the incredible work they had done in creating an unbreakable code. 

During the 1970s and ‘80s, more press articles began to appear. Finally in 2001, Congress awarded Congressional Gold Medals to those who were still living. 

The Code Talkers were the inspiration behind the 2002 Hollywood film, Windtalkers, starring Nicholas Cage.

***

Another story about World War II and fighting in the South Pacific concerns the dogs the Marines to take with them: U.S. War Dogs in the South Pacific.

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