For those of us to young to remember, the exploits of the Navajo code talkers during World War II have become legend. They were the guys who transmitted messages in their native language (with some English mixed in) between the Marine units closing in on Japan – a code the Japanese could not crack. Chester Nez, now 90, tells his story with help from Judith Schiess Avila in their new book Code Talker – The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII. Battleland recently chatted, via email, with Chester:
Why did you write Code Talker?
I wrote Code Talker: the first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII, so people would learn about how my Navajo people helped our country. It’s important that we understand how the diversity of cultures in this country contributes to our strength.
In a nutshell, tell us where you were deployed, for how long, and what you did there?
Guadalcanal – November 4, 1942
Bougainville – November 3, 1943
Guam – July 21, 1944
Peleliu – September 14, 1944
Angaur – September, 1944 – just a few days
On each island our mission was to secure the land for the United States, and we did that. As a code talker, I was responsible for sending messages about battle tactics, things that were needed by the troops (like ammunition and food), and the coordinates of Japanese troop and munitions locations so that our artillery and fighter planes could successfully target the enemy.
I stayed on each of the Pacific Islands until they were secured. The group of code talkers I was assigned to work with never got R&R. When the 1st Marine Division left Guadalcanal, I was assigned to help the 2d Division and then the 3d. I remained with the 3d except for during the conflicts on Peleliu and Angaur, where I was needed to help out the 1st Marine Division and the Eighty-First Army respectively.
What don’t people “get” about what you did in World War II?
Many people think we just spoke the Navajo language in our transmissions. They don’t realize that we developed a doubly-encrypted code based on English and Navajo.
Has your skill been replaced by computers and encryption?
What’s your reaction to that?
I’m fine with that.
Did you feel fully a U.S. citizen before the war?
As of 1924 Native Americans were officially declared citizens of the U.S. But certain states – like New Mexico and Arizona, the states where I grew up – would not allow Native Americans to vote. So I guess I wasn’t a full-fledged citizen until 1948, three years after the war ended, when I was finally allowed to vote.
Did your military service give you more of a sense of U.S. citizenship?
Yes. We felt like full citizens because we were really able to help our country in the war effort.
Were you discriminated against once you signed up for the corps?
Never. The Marines treated us well, and we did well as Marines. The Marines tried to protect us, because they considered us irreplaceable.
Tell about about the most interesting coded transmission you made during the war.
I will always remember my first transmission. “Enemy machine gun nest on your right flank. Destroy.” In Navajo code that was Beh-na-ali-tsosie a-knah-as-donih ah-toh nish-na-jih-goh dah-di-kad ah-deel-tahi. The message itself was not complex, but the fact that it was my first made it memorable. Most of our transmissions were critical, and the complexity of the Navajo language made our Navajo-based code unbreakable.
Do you still “talk in code”? If so, to whom? If not, can you still do it?
Occasionally the code talkers who are still living get together and we talk in code. We still take it seriously!! I enjoy that. I am the last one of the original men who developed the code, but there are maybe 40 others still alive. Those men followed the original code talkers and were trained in the code we developed. They also enhanced the code and helped to make it more complex.
Phonetically type out for us, in code: “My name is Chester Nez and I was a US Marine in World War II.”
Shije e Chester Nez yinshia do US Marine Corps betah nesibaa. (Co-author Judith Avila offers apologies for phonetic spelling!)
What is the most important contribution of the code talkers?
Navajo is one of the most difficult languages in the world to understand. Because of that, our code became the only unbroken code in modern warfare. Also, the fact that a bunch of Navajo men kept our transmissions safe in the Pacific War is a huge boost for Navajo morale. Before we entered the war, the Japanese were winning in the Pacific. After we arrived in the Pacific, the tide turned. Navajo people are proud of that, and I think the USA is, too.