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  • 2014
Marine Corps Heroes: Pvt. Chester Nez

By Cpl. Shaltiel Dominguez, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton

Chester Nez was one of the 29 original Navajo codetalkers charged with creating and transmitting the code. What used to take an hour to encrypt, transmit and decrypt on the mechanical Shackle encryption system could be transmitted orally by code-talkers in 40 seconds, giving the Americans the edge in battlefield communications against the Japanese in the Pacific.
Marine Corps Heroes: Pvt. Chester Nez
Chester Nez was one of the 29 original Navajo codetalkers charged with creating and transmitting the code. What used to take an hour to encrypt, transmit and decrypt on the mechanical Shackle encryption system could be transmitted orally by code-talkers in 40 seconds, giving the Americans the edge in battlefield communications against the Japanese in the Pacific.
This American Indian Heritage Month, we highlight Pvt. Chester Nez, one of the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers, unsung heroes who were responsible for decoding and relaying clear and accurate information during some of the most heated battles in the Pacific.

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The platoon sergeant dragged Pvt. Chester Nez down the creek bed as a Japanese reconnaissance plane flew above their observation post. Nez struggled to keep his 30-pound, hand-cranked radio from being drenched by the mud. He wiped the sweat from his forehead. The sweltering heat of Guam’s jungle was far different from the heat of the New Mexico desert he thought.

After a few minutes, the platoon sergeant brought out his binoculars, cleaned the lenses and signalled for Nez to continue with his radio message.

“Enemy machinegun nest at grid NB432789 along with two medium tanks and a squad-sized patrol in the open,” said the platoon sergeant in a hushed voice as two other Marines watched the perimeter.

“Dzeh — Nesh-chee — Dzeh — Na-as-tsosi — Tash-as-zih,” Nez spoke in Navajo as he transmitted the target locations and descriptions over the radio[1].

One of the Marines looked at him with suspicion.

“How do we know he ain’t working for the Japanese? He sure looks like one,” said the Marine.

The platoon sergeant gave him a stern look, silencing him. He then stowed his binoculars, sat down and grabbed a small box of crackers from his pack.

“What’s the deal with that?” the platoon sergeant pointed to the buckskin medicine bag that hung at Nez’s neck.

“As Navajo, we fear the spirits of the dead and are forbidden to have contact with the dead,” said Nez, smiling as he clutched the bag. “I keep the spirits at bay by thinking about home, by praying and by carrying this bag of blessed corn pollen.[2]”

“Buddy, you’re in the wrong line of work,” said the platoon sergeant said, amazed. He offered the crackers to his Marines. “This must have been a culture shock for you. Did I ever tell you I used to be a history teacher before the war? I know all about how your culture and traditions were treated.”

Nez nodded as he took one of the crackers and munched on it. “They had me change my name to Chester Nez back in school. They even tried to stop me from speaking the Navajo language by washing my mouth with soap whenever I did.[3]”

“And now you’re helping us win the war with it,” laughed the platoon sergeant. “Thanks to you, our guys back down the line will be prepped with anti-tank guns, mortars and machineguns when the Japanese come.”

“Just like you sergeant, I do it for our country,” said Nez.

In the distance, more Japanese tanks and vehicles gathered at a clearing. The platoon sergeant put the can of tuna down and picked up his binoculars.

“Well, time to get back to work,” said the platoon sergeant. “Get the heavy guns on the line. We might have to do a call for fire soon.”

Nez nodded before touching his medicine bag and whispering a silent Navajo prayer for the dead.

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Chester Nez was one of the 29 original Navajo codetalkers charged with creating and transmitting the code. What used to take an hour to encrypt, transmit and decrypt on the mechanical Shackle encryption system could be transmitted orally by code-talkers in 40 seconds, giving the Americans the edge in battlefield communications against the Japanese in the Pacific[4].

Nez served in key battles of the Pacific war such as Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu and Angaur. After the war, he suffered from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, fighting it successfully with traditional Navajo healing ceremonies. Nez worked for 25 years painting walls and murals at a veterans’ hospital in Albuquerque and passed away on June 4, 2014[5].

The Navajo code, with its complex and irregular syntax and lack of an alphabet remained unbroken and was considered so valuable that they were not allowed to talk about it until 1969[6]. They were responsible for transmitting information on tactics, troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield information.

At Iwo Jima, Maj. Howard Connor, a signal officer with the 5th Marine Division, praised the code talkers, saying that “were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.[7]”

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[1] Remembering the last of the original Navajo Code Talkers, The Arizona Central, Nov.11, 2014

[2] Obituary: Chester Nez, the last of America’s Navajo code-talkers, died on June 4th aged 93, The Economist, June 21, 2014

[3] Ibid.

[4] Obituary: Chester Nez, the last of America’s Navajo code-talkers, died on June 4th aged 93, The Economist, June 21, 2014

[5] Ibid.

[6] Carl Gorman, Code Talker in World War II, Dies at 90, The New York Times, Feb. 1, 1998

[7] Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet, the Navy & Marine Corps WWII Commemorative Committee