A Navajo, U.S. war hero and artist, Chester Nez (1923–2014) served as a code talker during World War II. He assisted U.S. troops fighting the Japanese in the Pacific by sharing information using a code he helped develop based on the Navajo language. Nez also was an accomplished artist and muralist.
Nez was born on January 23, 1921, in Two Wells, New Mexico. The city's name is Chichiltah in the Navajo language. At birth, he was given a Navajo name, but it was forgotten over time. His last name, Nez, is a Navajo word for “very tall.” Nez's mother died when he was three years old, and he was reared by his father, paternal grandmother, and other members of his father's family.
Reared on a Farm
Raised on a reservation with his siblings and extended family, Nez spent his early childhood helping his family herd their flock of sheep. Though his family members were prosperous farmers, they were forced to focus on subsistence farming after the federal government killed thousands of sheep owned by Navajos in the 1930s. The official explanation for this action was overgrazing in the area. There were periods in his youth when he did not have food for several days.
When Nez was eight years old, he became a student at a boarding school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Over the years, Nez would attend several such schools in New Mexico and Arizona. At his first school, he was given the name Chester, after President Chester A. Arthur, as part of the process of forced assimilation into the dominant white culture. While a student there, Nez and his classmates were not permitted to speak Navajo under threat of punishments such as beatings or getting their mouths washed out with soap.
During World War II, attitudes changed. By 1942, Nez was a high school student in Tuba City, Arizona, and he spoke fluent Navajo and English. A Marine Corps recruiter from Fort Defiance visited his school looking for young men who could speak both languages. After his sophomore year in high school, Nez joined the Marines, determined to support the United States even though he was barely considered a citizen. According to Elaine Woo of the Washington Post, Nez later wrote, “I reminded myself that my Navajo people had always been warriors, protectors. In that there was honor. I would concentrate on being a warrior, on protecting my homeland.”
Helped Develop the Code
The Marines sought bilingual recruits like Nez for a new program. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Philip Johnston convinced Marine Intelligence that the Navajo language would be an ideal way to encode spoken communication. A veteran of World War I and the son of missionaries, Johnston had become a fluent speaker after spending his childhood among the Navajo. Because Navajo is different in syntax and sound than English and difficult to learn, such a code would be difficult for the enemy to crack. The Japanese had broken every other code used by the Allies to date. By early 1942, victory in the Pacific theater became increasingly uncertain. Given earlier successes the U.S. military had using other Native American languages for codes, the Navajo were given a chance to develop a new code with their language.
After joining the Marines in May 1942, Nez was sent to California for boot camp. He and 28 other Navajo recruits selected for the code project were then sent to San Diego's Camp Elliott. There, the members of the 382nd platoon were ordered to devise a code based on the Navajo language that was quick, accurate, and easily memorized. They were given only 13 weeks to complete the task. According to the London Daily Telegraph, Nez once said: “Everybody thought we'd never make it. It seemed impossible because even among ourselves, we didn't agree on all the right Navajo words.”
Created Complex Code
Working together, the group came up with a code with two layers of encryption. It could only be understood by the other Navajo code talkers. The first layer of the code was the Navajo language, understood only by a few non‐Navajos. The second layer built on the Navajo language to create a glossary of words used in communicating battlefield information. This glossary contained: Navajo translations of English words; 450 euphemisms of other words—such as che‐chil‐be‐tah‐besh‐legai (“silver oak leaf”) for lieutenant colonel; and an encrypted alphabet that could be used to spell English words. When spoken, the code did not sound like Navajo but could be used with ease by the bilingual code talkers. With practice, the original code talkers were able to code and decode messages quickly and accurately.
During the war, the code talkers essentially served as human coding machines. All code talkers memorized the code. After being given a message written in English, a code talker relayed the encoded message via radio to another code talker at the front lines. The front line code talker translated the message into English and wrote it down. It was then routed to the proper recipient and destroyed after reading. The transmission of messages only took a few minutes. Precision was essential since the information relayed via code talkers involved such vital data as bombing coordinates, troop movements, casualty reports, strategy, and other matters of intelligence.
Served as Code Talker at Key Battlefronts
Nez sent his first coded message in November 1942 at Guadalcanal, warning U.S. troops about an enemy machine gun nest to their right. After his message was sent, the Americans eliminated the threaat. Nez went on to use his skills as a code talker in several key battlefronts of the Pacific theater: Bougainville, New Guinea, in November 1943; Guam in July 1944; and Peleliu and Angaur islands in September 1944.
Like the other code talkers, Nez was considered indispensable and often worked for 35 straight hours without food or rest. He rarely received recreation time. The original 29 were followed by 400 more Navajo who were bilingual and trained in the code. They were often in the line of fire, hiding in foxholes and on beaches littered with bodies. According to the London Daily Telegraph, Nez once explained: “When bombs dropped, generally we code talkers couldn't just curl up in a shelter. We were almost always needed to transmit information, to ask for supplies and ammunition, and to communicate strategies. And after each transmission, to avoid Japanese fire, we had to move.”
While serving as a code talker, Nez was never seriously injured but once was threatened at gunpoint by a fellow soldier who thought Nez was Japanese. He was held for more than two hours until his identity was confirmed. More than a dozen of Nez's fellow code talkers were killed in action, however. Yet the use of the code helped the United States emerge victorious in the Pacific in 1945 and saved thousands of American lives. It was considered the key to victory at Iwo Jima. The code itself was the only oral military code never to have been broken.
Faced Difficulties after the War
After being honorably discharged in 1945, Nez returned home and struggled with mental health issues, such as post‐traumatic stress disorder, as did many of his fellow code talkers. Nez suffered from intense, disturbing nightmares. The code talkers were forbidden from talking about the nature of their service during the war, adding to their stress. This was done so that the military could use the code again, if needed; it was successfully employed in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Shortly after his discharge from the Marine Corps, Nez had a mental breakdown and spent five months in a military hospital. Nez's father helped saved his life by telling him the nightmares were caused by the spirits of the dead Japanese. A traditional healing ceremony performed on Nez caused the nightmares to end. Through it all, Nez considered himself lucky as many of his fellow code talkers became alcoholics or gave up on life.
Nez also faced discrimination in this period. It was not until 1948 that New Mexico allowed Native Americans to vote. He and other Native Americans had to carry a federal identity card, the Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. After his discharge, he went to a federal building in Gallup, New Mexico, to register for this card wearing his uniform. There, a white clerk reminded him that he was not a full U.S. citizen.
After overcoming his mental health issues, Nez pursued his education while serving in the Marine Corps Reserves. He earned his high school diploma. Then, using his GI Bill, Nez attended the University of Kansas from 1946 to 1952. There, he studied commercial art. He was unable to complete a degree because his GI Bill funding ran out. In 2012, the university gave Nez a bachelor of fine arts degree.
During the Korean War in the early 1950s, Nez was again an active member of the Marine Corps. He was stationed for two years in Hawaii during the conflict. After the war, he returned to New Mexico, where he was employed as a maintenance worker, painter, and muralist at what became the Veteran Affairs hospital in Albuquerque. Some of his murals depict Navajo culture, and many were widely lauded for their details. He retired in 1974.
Emerged as Public Figure
In the late 1960s, the work of the code talkers became widely known when the Navajo code was fully declassified by the military. In later years, Nez began making public appearances and giving interviews about his wartime work. Interest increased in the early 21st century when the creators of the code were given the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2001 by President George W. Bush. The following year, a movie, Windtalkers, was made about their experience. In 2011, Nez published an autobiography, co‐written with Judith Schiess Avila, titled Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII. Nez was honored by Farmington, New Mexico, when it established Chester Nez Day on November 1, 2012.
Suffering from diabetes, Nez had both legs amputated. The last of the original 29 code talkers, Nez died of kidney failure on June 4, 2014, at the Albuquerque home of one of his sons. He was 93 years old.
In talking about his World War II experiences, Nez described the impact of his experience on himself and his country. He told Matthew Bruun of the Telegram & Gazette: “When I enlisted in the Marine Corps, I thought about a lot of things. They mistreated my tribe. … But then I thought, this would be my chance to do something for my country and the people of the United States. I am very happy and very proud that I decided to defend my country. This will always be with me, to be thankful for something that I did.”
Congressional Medal of Honor, 2001.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 14, 2014.
Farmington Daily News (New Mexico), June 4, 2014; October 29, 2012.
New York Times, June 6, 2014.
Stars and Stripes, November 15, 2013.
Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts), April 15, 2005.
Times (London, England), June 6, 2014.
Washington Post, June 8, 2014.