June 4, 2014
He passed away on June 4, 2014, at the age of 93. But, for 23 years of his life, he had a secret, a secret he couldn’t tell anyone. Not even his family.
Chester Nez kept his word.
It wasn’t until 2001 that he was finally able to tell his story, after his mission was de-classified.
During the war, there had been as many as 400 Navajo who would learn a code that would end the war. Nez was one of the original 29 code talkers who invented the language. He was the last surviving member of the original 29.
Nez’ story began when he was in 10th grade, when he lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. He showed up at Fort Defiance, the same Fort Defiance which had witnessed two battles between the Navajo and the U.S. Military.
He remembered how the land belonging to his people was taken. He also remembered how they tried to take their culture away from them. And, then their language. He recalled being punished as a child for speaking his own language. He recalled children often being taken from reservations, sent to boarding schools, and told to not speak the Navajo language.
But, when the land that he loved was threatened, Chester Nez stood up and volunteered to defend this country, the same country which at that time did not even allow him to vote.
Out of hundreds of men from the Navajo Nation who enlisted, Nez was one of 29 who were selected to develop a code based on the then-unwritten Navajo language, the same language he was punished for speaking.
He would join the other elite group of Code Talkers, who were inducted in May 1942 and became the 382nd Platoon tasked with developing the code.
The Navajo code talkers were commended for their skill, speed, and accuracy throughout the war. If not for the Navajo Code Talkers, according to the Marines, we would not have been able to win the Pacific, and eventually the war.
The Navajo Code Talkers have since been recognized and honored accordingly. But, it took 23 years for them to be recognized. Even during the war, Nez was forbidden to reveal his top secret mission to his fellow soldiers; he and his partner were even mistakened for Japanese soldiers and were threatened at gunpoint.
When they were finally honored in 2001 with the Congressional Gold Medal, he was finally recognized.
“He loved his culture and his country, and when called, he fought to protect both,” Senator Tom Udall said. “And because of his service, we enjoy freedoms that have stood the test of time.”
Nez was proud of his service and what he did; he was even prouder that he was able to do this, honoring his culture and the same language he was forbidden to speak as a child.
He said, “My wartime experiences developing a code that utilized the Navajo language taught how important our Navajo culture is to our country. For me that is the central lesson: that diverse cultures can make a country richer and stronger.”