ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — With gnarled fingers, Chester Nez reverently opened the small box his son Mike had fetched for him at their West Mesa home. Even at 90 years old, Nez’s face still beams as he proudly opens it.
Careful not to touch the gold medal, Nez shares a secret.
“On the other side it says, ‘We used our language to defeat the enemy,’ and that’s what we did,” he said.
Nez carefully puts the lid back on the box and hands it to his son for safekeeping. Inside is a Congressional Gold Medal — one of only 29 in existence — given to Nez by then-President George W. Bush during a White House ceremony July 26, 2001.
Five of the “original 29? Navajo Code Talkers, the men who developed and implemented the code that confounded the Japanese during World War II and was never broken, received the medals that day.
In a moment that speaks to the reverence Nez holds for his country, instead of shaking the president’s hand after being handed the medal, he saluted Bush as his commander-in-chief.
When the ceremony took place, five of the “original 29? were living. Today, only Nez remains.
“I always think about those guys I served with. I try to remember what I did with those guys and how we fought together,” Nez, nearly deaf and reliant on a wheelchair since losing the lower portion of both legs to diabetes, said in an interview. “It made me very sorry when I would hear that they had passed.”
Chester Nez, one of nine children in his family, was born at Cousin Brothers Trading Post on the Navajo Nation, about 15 miles southwest of Gallup. His family isn’t certain of the date he was born, but government officials have set it at Jan. 23, 1921.
He grew up at Chichiltah — which translates to “among the oaks” — 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.
Like most Indian boarding schools, the children were forced to speak English and were punished when they were caught talking their native Navajo. It was part of the federal government’s efforts to acculturate Native Americans.
By the time he was 18, Nez had attended boarding schools in Fort Defiance, Gallup and Tuba City, interspersed with “vacations” back home on the vast Navajo Reservation.
“He was in the 10th grade at Tuba City Boarding School when the recruiters came to the school,” Mike Nez said. “They were specifically looking for Navajos. They didn’t know they would be Code Talkers when they were recruited.”
Asked why he decided to join the Marines, Nez said he wasn’t sure, but he thought the military had to be better than boarding school.
“I just heard they were recruiting, so I thought I’d go along and join the Marine Corps,” Nez said.
The new recruits were bused to Fort Defiance, Ariz., 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. “It was kind of hard work, but it didn’t take us too long to develop the code.”
That’s where he met fellow Navajo Marines like Allen Dale June, Benjamin Cleveland, Jack Nez (no relation), his lifelong friend, Roy L. Begay, and the rest of the “original 29.”
Day in and day out, the group worked on nothing but the code. They first developed an alphabet using common Navajo words. For example, “A” became the Navajo word for “ant” or wol-la-chee. “A” could also be be-la-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.
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’d switch, Nez said.
The Navajo 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.
Because their services were in such high demand, it was rare that Code Talkers were allowed “rest and recreation” leave like most other Marine troops. Instead, they were pushed to the forefront of the island-hopping campaign toward Japan.
Nez served at Guadalcanal, the largest island in the southwestern Pacific’s Solomon Island chain; Tarawa, a chain of 24 small islands in the central Pacific; and Peleliu, an island in the island nation of Palau.
Like all frontline units, Nez’s platoon saw plenty of action and more than its share of war horrors. Hundreds of troops were mowed down on the beaches as they disembarked from landing boats to attack well-entrenched Japanese troops. Because the Japanese were trained to locate the source of radio transmissions, the Code Talker teams had to be constantly on the move.
“A lot of Marines got killed or wounded,” Nez said as he stared across the living room. “A lot.”
When the war ended, Nez spent several weeks at a military hospital in San Francisco recovering from what was called “battle fatigue,” now known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. He 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. Two of Nez’s sons, Stanley and Ray, are deceased. His daughter, Tyas, lives in Idaho. Nez now lives with son Mike, Mike’s wife, Rita, and their children.
Nez — who has 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 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 Code Talkers who served during the war became celebrities — an occurrence Nez simply describes as “very surprising.”
Their role was publicized even further with the 1982 release of the big-budget Hollywood movie “Windtalkers,” which is based on the Navajo Code Talkers and their heroic role in World War II.
Nez saw the movie, and said it’s “pretty realistic,” though he doubts his ranking noncommissioned officer would have shot him if he were about to be captured in order to protect the code.
The film, he said, “made me remember a lot of things that happened when we were there” while fighting in the Pacific.
More recently, 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.
When he’s able, Nez attends book signings and pens his name in beautiful script, accompanied by a title only he can include — “original 29.”