About Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker
One of the First 29 Navajo Code Talkers
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Nez, Chester Navajo Code Talker (Original 29) Alive
Location Birthdate Decorations Congressional Gold Medal of Honor
Nez was born in a wooden shack at a place now called Oak Canyon, up on the Arizona-Utah border. His parents grew corn and pinto beans in the dry earth and kept a few goats and sheep. He is not exactly sure when he was born. But he was young and hardly stopped to consider the mistreatment of his people - the hundreds who died on an enforced march to New Mexico in the 1860s, the starvation and infant mortality on the reservation, even in the 1940s, and the fact the Navajo were still not allowed to vote in state elections.
Nez’s family lived in a remote spot. They saw few strangers and spoke only Navajo. His mother died when he was an infant and it was a struggle for his father to raise a young family alone. One day a Mexican trader came by and told Nez’s father about free boarding schools.
Chester Nez reckons he was just turning 18 when the Marines came to his school in Arizona one day in 1942. The way Nez saw it, he was being given the chance to represent his tribe and fight for his country. He took it.
"When they came by, they didn’t tell us what we were supposed to do in the corps," says Chester Nez, "but they were looking for some Navajos." He and the other 28 original recruits were sent to Camp Elliott, near San Diego. "They put us in that one big room, they locked the door behind us, and they told us to make up a code from A to Zee, and this is all related to our language, our native tongue." "It took us almost 13 weeks to compile all this code in our new tongue," says Nez.
Next they would be required to memorise it and use it. Nez shipped for New Caledonia and from there it was on to the jungle island of Guadalcanal. "That’s the first combat baptism that we endured," he says. "That’s where we used code in our new tongue for the first time."
Nez says he never encountered any racial prejudice, or rather he never encountered any anti-Indian prejudice. There was one unfortunate incidence of racial discrimination one day when Nez and another Navajo accompanied an army unit. "When we had finished our duty, sending messages back and forth, and started to go back, two guys approach us and stop us and ask us what we are doing. They thought we were a couple of Japanese.
"They kept us there for two or three hours until they sent a guy to verify that we were a couple of code talkers working with them at the communication centre. One guy came by and told them: ‘These two guys was the life-line.’"
By the time of Iwo Jima, Nez had been wounded and had spent so long in combat the military shipped him home on leave, but Billison was there. Asked what the Navajo did at Iwo Jima, he laughs quietly to himself and pauses. "That’s a big question," he says. There is a long pause. "Well, we did practically everything I guess." A little more prompting... "Code talkers were assigned to infantry, tanks, artillery, some were aboard ships. We were just part of it."
Only when asked the direct question "Were you wounded?" does he reveal that he was. "We were making a landing," he says, talking slowly, each word deliberately and carefully fashioned somewhere deep down inside of him. "We disembarked from the landing craft. The enemies were shooting and everything like that, and artillery firing, and all the shrapnel was just flying all over. And that’s where I got caught."
Nez was lucky - he sustained only a minor foot injury. "One of my uncles was a code talker and he didn’t make it back." His name was David Wilson, he thinks, or maybe Thomas Wilson. He is not sure. Navajos often use several different names anyway. "He was killed in action at Peleliu." Nez too was part of the invasion force fighting for possession of that six-mile long coral islet, site of a Japanese airstrip, 500 miles east of the Philippines.
When Nez returned to the United States he was sworn to secrecy for more than 20 years about what the Code Talkers had done in the war, about the secret code they used to send vital messages between troops.
After the war he worked as a painter in a veterans’ hospital in Albuquerque and now lives in retirement with his son’s family in the New Mexican state capital.
As one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, Nez (together with the three other remaining from his group) was presented the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush on July 26, 2001.
The Congressional gold medal ceremony was held in the Capitol Rotunda on July 26, 2001, witnessed by a standing-room-only audience.
Members of Congress, the Marine Corps, four navajo Code Talkers, Code Talker family members, and invited guests crowded into the chamber to participate in this historic event, at which President Bush presented gold medals to the first twenty-nine Navajo Code Talkers. This is the highest civilian medal that can be given (read more).
"Today, America honors 21 Native Americans who, in a desperate hour, gave their country a service only they could give. In war, using their native language, they relayed secret messages that turned the course of battle. At home, they carried for decades the secret of their own heroism. Today, we give these exceptional Marines the recognition they earned so long ago." Speech by President George W. Bush at the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony on July 26, 2001. (Read the complete speech here)
4 Original Code TalkersPresident George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to four of the five living Navajo (Diné) Code Talkers: John Brown Jr. (Crystal, NM), Chester Nez (Albuquerque, NM), Allen Dale June (West Valley City, UT) and Lloyd Oliver (Phoenix, AZ). Joe Palmer, also one of the original 29, was unable to attend for health reasons. (See President Bush's speech here with Realplayer)
Capitol RotundaThe following Code Talkers who had passed away were represented at the ceremony by family members: Charlie Y. Begay, Roy L. Begay, Samuel H. Begay, John Ashi Benally, Wilsie H. Bitsie, Cosey S. Brown, John Chee, Benjamin Cleveland, Eugene R. Crawford, David Curley, Lowell S. Damon, George H. Dennison, James Dixon, Carl N. Gorman, Oscar B. Ilthma, Alfred Leonard, Johnny R. Manuelito, William McCabe, Jack Nez, Frank Denny Pete, Nelson S. Thompson, Harry Tsosie, John Willie and William Yazzie. (More)
John Brown Jr.John Brown, Jr. spoke on behalf of the recipients, thanking the President and the Congress. He was interrupted several times as the audience rose to their feet to cheer and applaud. "It seems fitting to be here in the Capitol Rotunda, such a historic place, where so many heroes have been honored. I am proud that the Navajo Code Talkers today join the ranks of those great Americans" Brown said. "Of the original 29 Code Talkers" he continued, "there are just 5 of us that live today -- Chester Nez, Lloyd Oliver, Alan Dale June, Joe Palmer, and myself. We have seen much in our lives; we have experienced war and peace; we know the value of freedom and democracy that this great nation embodies. But, our experiences have also shown us how fragile these things can be, and how we must stay ever vigilant to protect them. As Code Talkers -- as Marines -- we did our part to protect these values. It is my hope that our young people will carry on this honorable tradition as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers flow."
The old guard and the newSenator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) was the sponsor of the bill to award the medals and described the Congressional gold and silver medals as among the most distinguished honors the Congress can bestow. In this case, he added, he also considers it a celebration of human ingenuity and innovation, especially when faced with what seemed to be insurmountable odds. "As a nation," he said, "we are but a product of those who have come before us, and of their accomplishments, their contributions, and their sacrifice in the struggle for freedom and democracy. Through the presentation of this distinguished award, the Congress expresses the gratitude of an entire nation to these brave and innovative veterans." According to a spokesperson at Senator Bingaman's office, there are 398 more code talkers who will receive the Congressional Silver Medal soon.
Following the award ceremony, MGM Studios hosted a reception at the Library of Congress in celebration of the code talkers and to publicly announce their soon-to-be-released epic motion picture Windtalkers, the first film to tell the story of the Navajo Marine code talkers' secret program of WWII. Windtalkers' director John Woo, actors Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, and Roger Willie enjoyed meeting the code talkers who made such a significant contribution to ending the war.