Unit: 1st Marine Division; 3rd Marine Division
Dates of Service: May 1942 - January 1946
Battles / Campaigns: Guadalcanal; Bougainville; Guam; Peleliu
"People ask me, 'Why did you go? Look at all the mistreatment that has been done to your people.' Somebody’s got to go, somebody’s got to defend this country. Somebody’s got to defend the freedom. This is the reason why I went." (Video interview, 1:13:33)
Chester Nez was born in Chi Chil Tah, New Mexico on the Navajo reservation in 1921. He grew up in the surrounding "Checkerboard" region of northwest New Mexico, where his family frequently moved from one grazing area to another with their sheep herds. Chester’s mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his father, maternal aunt, and grandmother. Nez’s family owned a large herd of 1,000 sheep, and were economically and emotionally devastated when the federal government killed 700 of their sheep during the enforced livestock reduction program in the 1930s. He started school at the age of eight in Tohatchi, but his family removed him and his sister from that school after the first year when they discovered they were not being fed adequately. Nez then spent several years at a boarding school in Fort Defiance, where the food may have been more substantial but the abusive treatment continued in other ways. Students were punished—often physically—for speaking in Navajo, and were generally treated in a degrading manner while being encouraged to forget the traditional teachings from their families. He was a high school student in Tuba City, Arizona when World War II started, and in April 1942 Marine Corps recruiters appeared on the reservation, looking to recruit a large number of young Navajo men together.1
Nez was part of the first all-Navajo platoon at Marine Corps boot camp, a group of 29 men who would become known as the “First Twenty-Nine” Code Talkers. After boot camp, they were sent to a new Navajo Communications School at Camp Elliott, California, where they were tasked with devising a cipher code using the Navajo language that could rapidly and securely transmit voice messages. These 29 young men skillfully created a code that was complex enough so that the Japanese were never able to break it—even after torturing Navajo POWs from Army units—yet simple and logical enough that it could be memorized by hundreds of other Code Talkers. After creating the Navajo Code and committing it to memory, Nez and most of the other First Twenty-Nine were rushed out to units in the South Pacific.
In early November 1942 Nez joined up with the 1st Marine Division, which had already been engaged in ferocious fighting on Guadalcanal for three months. Nez’s first radio transmission in the Navajo Code on Guadalcanal brought an artillery strike square on target, destroying a Japanese machine gun nest - an exhilarating experience that filled him with pride. Nez and other Code Talkers with the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions rapidly won the confidence of their commanders, and the Navajo Code became an indispensable weapon. But combat was also a somber and sobering experience for Nez, as he survived "banzai" attacks and never got used to the sight of dead bodies. While his experiences were stressful, the camaraderie that he felt with his fellow Marines helped to get him through, as did the traditional Navajo prayers that he said on a daily basis.
After Guadalcanal, Nez was reassigned to the 3rd Marine Division, with whom he participated in the Battle of Bougainville.2 On Bougainville, Nez saw more brutal fighting, including hand-to-hand combat—but he also remembers the more enjoyable occasion when some of the other Navajo Marines made fry bread in their steel helmets (Video interview, 47:55). In July and August 1944, Nez and his 3rd Marine Division comrades took part in the Battle of Guam, where Nez was wounded in the foot, and also bore witness to the cruelties that had been visited upon the native Chamorros by occupying Japanese troops. In September, Nez was temporarily reassigned to his old unit—the 1st Marine Division—for the Battle of Peleliu, a particularly bitter engagement that cost the Americans staggeringly high casualties. Nez witnessed more apocalyptic combat on Peleliu, but remained determined to do his job reliably and keep faith with his fellow Marines. When he finally left the island in late November, he felt that he was barely hanging on to his sanity.3
After the war, Chester Nez struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, but reported that an Enemy Way ceremony held for him was effective for him.4 The Enemy Way is a traditional Navajo ceremony performed for returning combat veterans to help them process their experience, reintegrate into society, and restore balance to their life. Nez finished his high school diploma at the Haskell Institute in Kansas, and also used the GI Bill to attend the University of Kansas, where he majored in fine arts. As a reservist, Nez was also called up to serve on active duty during the Korean War, but did not have to deploy overseas. Nez later secured a job with the Veterans Administration, for whom he worked for 25 years before retiring. As one of the "First Twenty-Nine" Code Talkers who devised the Navajo Code, Chester Nez was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001.
Chester Nez passed away in June 2014 at the age of 93.
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