Last of the original Navajo code talkers, Chester Nez — died at age 93

This article appeared in the military newspaper, STARS AND STRIPES, last November. Honoring Chester Nez.

The 29 U.S. Marines dodged bullets at the front — first in the Pacific and then in Germany — passing top-secret messages to each other in a code that the enemy couldn’t crack.

The warriors, Navajo Code Talkers, relied on their their native language to develop the code, which helped to turn the course of World War II in the favor of the Allies. Of the original group, only one is still alive: Chester Nez.

On Nov. 9, the American Veterans Center honored Nez and six other veterans for bravery and valor above and beyond the call of duty during combat. Nez received the Audie Murphy Award for distinguished service in the military during World War II.

“I was very proud to say that the Japanese did everything in their power to break that code but they never did,” Nez said in an interview with Stars and Stripes the day before the award ceremony.

If the Code Talkers had been caught, he said, they would be tortured and their tongues cut out. They risked everything for the United States, even though they were raised in military boarding schools that prohibited them from speaking their native language…

Their language, however, would serve the United States well later, in 1942, when Americans were dying in rising numbers overseas, especially in the Pacific. The Japanese seemed to know what the U.S. military was planning well before it took place.

That’s where the Code Talkers came in, recruited from boarding schools to join the Marines and use their unique skills to develop an unbreakable code to pass messages…

World War I veteran Philip Johnston, who came up with the idea to develop the Navajo Code in 1941, came to Nez’ boarding school to recruit. The volunteers went directly into basic training without any goodbyes. Nez left behind his sister Dora, his father and his beloved grandmother, who wouldn’t know he was fighting until two years after he left…

After the war, the Navajo men received no fanfare, and many struggled, said Judith Avila, who co-wrote Nez’s memoir “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Talkers of WWII” and helped Nez during the Nov. 8 interview.

Instead of people thanking them for their service, they faced discrimination and insults, she said. When Nez wore his Marine Corps uniform to register for his Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood — required for all Native Americans — the clerk told Nez he wasn’t a real citizen…

Without support, suffering from what most now know to be post-traumatic stress, many Code Talkers turned to alcohol and lived on the streets. There were about 420 Code Talkers that followed the original 29 into service. Of that group, about 30 are still alive.

Nez said he was one of the lucky ones. When he returned, he was embraced by his family. He got a job at the VA, which he kept until the 1970s.

Nez still has good memories of his time with the Marines, whom he said treated the Code Talkers very well. Latham Nez, who accompanied his grandfather to the awards, said the Marines saw the Navajo men as “damn good Marines” who were already warriors when they left for basic training.

I met a few Code Talkers when I lived in the Navajo Nation. It was an honor.

The contrast between the reception back home for white soldiers compared to Black, Hispanic and Native American veterans is well known, nowadays. But, decades of indifference and bigotry have been exceedingly slow to disappear from even acceptable behavior in polite society.

Jake Schoellkkopf/Los Angeles Times

Chester Nez was a brave and courageous American. He died, yesterday, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Thanks, Mike

11 thoughts on “Last of the original Navajo code talkers, Chester Nez — died at age 93

  1. bilagáana says:

    Navajo ‘Code Talker’ dies in Utah at age 92 Born in Naschitti, New Mexico, Ernest Yazhe joined the U.S. Marines when he was 19 years old. His older brother Harrison Yazhe, who died in 2004, also became a Code Talker. Both brothers’ names appeared in the Congressional record on the list of Code Talkers confirmed by the Marines. There were at least 440 Code Talkers. Fewer than 20 are still alive. A third brother, U.S. Army Pfc. Silas Yazzie, died in combat in Italy in 1944. The brothers had slightly different last names because officials with schools or the military recorded them with different phonetic spellings over the years, his family said.

  2. Semper Fi, Mac says:

    Navajo Code Talker Joe Hosteen Kellwood died Monday at age 95. Kellwood joined the 1st Marine Division in 1942 at the age of 21 and operated as a Navajo Code Talker until the war ended in April, 1945.
    He took part in several battles in the Pacific Theater, including the Battle of Cape Gloucester, Peleliu and Okinawa. In an interview when he received his commemorative silver medal from the federal government for his service as a Code Talker, Kellwood said he didn’t worry much about being killed in action because he had a secret way to protect himself the Navajo war — he chewed sacred corn pollen hidden in his chewing gum.
    Library of Congress Veterans History Project Joe Hosteen Kellwood interview (89:24)

  3. Oscar Mike says:

    “New Mexico: Governor, lawmakers pledge over $1.2 million for Code Talker museum” “State Sen. John Pinto, a 94-year-old Democrat from Gallup, has long wanted to build a Navajo Code Talkers Museum and Visitors Center in New Mexico to honor the service of about 400 Navajo servicemen who used their language skills to pave the way for the invasion of the Japanese islands in World War II.
    On Friday, his dream finally came closer to reality when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pledged $500,000 for the museum and senators from both political parties anted up another $526,000 out of their allotted capital outlay for construction and infrastructure projects.
    “If we don’t tell this story, it will be lost, and this is a story that we cannot lose,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference to announce the deal.
    Pinto expressed elation and shook the governor’s hand before teaching her some Navajo words to use when she is eating chicken.”
    There were 29 original Code Talkers. Senator Pinto was in the second group. Sen. Pinto:

    • Semper Fi says:

      New Mexico Sen. John D. Pinto, a former World War II Navajo Code Talker, died Friday morning, according to a statement from his family. Pinto was 94 and was the longest-serving senator in New Mexico, where he had been serving since 1977, according to New Mexico’s Senate website. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered all state flags to fly at half-staff effective immediately, according to a joint news release from the senator’s family, the governor’s office and the Navajo Nation.
      “John Pinto’s towering legacy stretches far beyond the borders of New Mexico, and his loss will be felt across not only this nation but the world,” Grisham said. “He was a New Mexico icon and an American hero.”

  4. Bilagáana says:

    One of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers has died. Joe Vandever died Friday. He was 96.
    Joe Vandever enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps in Santa Fe in 1943. He served as a Code Talker during World War II in Guam, Okinawa, and the occupations of both Japan and China.
    Joe and his wife, Bessie, had been married 73 years before she died in September. They had nine children, 39 grandchildren, 55 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

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