Navajo Code Talkers Day: The Life and Legacy of Chester Nez
Navajo Code Talkers Day on Aug. 14th honors the veterans who encrypted their Native language to provide fast and secure phone and radio communications during World War II. Navajo Code Talkers were trained to transmit messages under intense conditions, and their unbreakable code is credited with helping the U.S. win the war.
The “original 29” Code Talkers began in 1942 and were unsung heroes until 2001 when they were awarded Congressional Gold Medals. These individuals were instrumental in shaping the campaigns of the second World War and we continue to honor their legacy today. About 400 other Navajos followed the original 29 to war.
Chester Nez was the last surviving member of the original 29. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the war as part of Recruit Training Platoon 382. After graduating from boot camp in San Diego, Nez and the rest of his platoon were tasked with creating the code for secure tactical communications. While code talkers from other nations also served in World War II, the Navajo language was selected because of its complex syntax and phonology.
Nez was born in Chi Chil’tah, New Mexico in 1921. Like so many other Native American children at the time, he was sent at age 8 to a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The school assigned his English name “Chester” and it was there he was recruited by the Marine Corps.
When Nez and his platoon went to Guadalcanal, an island in the Solomon Islands, they worked in teams of two to send and receive critical messages. From 1942 to 1945, Nez traveled to Bougainville, Guam, Angaur and Peleliu to assist with wartime communications. He was honorably discharged in 1945 and returned to the U.S., where he later assisted with the Korean War effort.
Nez retired from the military as a corporal and went on to study commercial arts at the University of Kansas. He then spent 25 years working as a painter for the Veterans Administration hospital in Albuquerque before retiring in New Mexico. Nez published a memoir in 2011 titled Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII. In it, he recounts how he was once punished for speaking the same Native language that later helped assure victory for the U.S.
Nez passed away in 2014 at the age of 93. Today, we commemorate Chester Nez, and the rest of the Navajo Code Talkers who forever helped shape U.S. history. Learn more about the code talkers that followed from other tribes.