Back in 1941, a group of Navajo kids at a boarding school were visited by a Marine Corps recruiter. As a Navajo, they grew up with their world, as they knew it, being a rough square defined by four mountains in the western United States. But they did understand that, about 3000 miles away, another country had rained fire on their country and wanted to be able to help in any way possible. It was kind of ironic that they felt this way being as their presence at that boarding school was, usually, a result of the government removing them from their homes and they, nor their families, had nothing to say about it. They were prohibited from speaking their native language and observing their native customs. They were to assimilate into american life.
One of the Navajo boys was named Chester Nez. The Marine Corps recruiter impressed Chester so much that he wanted to become one…and he did. Chester and 28 other Navajo got to work on helping the war effort in a very unique way. They became the 382nd Marine Platoon. A very unassuming name given to a very extraordinary group of Marines.
The Navajo language, the language that they had previously been prohibited from speaking, has now become something that our government can use to its benefit. These 29 Navajo set down and created a code using a language that had never been a written language. It became a code that was used across the Pacific Theater of Operations and a code that frustrated the Japanese because they could never break it.
Establishing this code was only the part of their mission. The continuation of their mission was to actually go to war and implement the code they had established.
Now, going to war is not a pleasant prospect for anyone but it presented a unique challenge to these young Navajo. In the Navajo culture, they had been taught their whole lives, and rightly so, that words carry unseen power. They had been taught to “Nizaad baa’ áhályá”…be careful how you speak. Now they are intending to use their Navajo words to bring harm to an enemy. This is not a pleasant proposition for them and was an ethical hurdle that they were going to need to negotiate.
According to their faith. Navajo words used by a soldier in war could be protected by a religious ritual called ách’ááh tsodizin — a shield made of prayer. But being as what the 382nd Marine Platoon was doing was very sensitive in nature, they were restricted from leaving base, much less going back to the reservation so a medicine man could perform this ritual. This secret had to be protected.
What Chester did was rely on his faith. He packed up his uniform and sent it to his father. His father took that uniform to the medicine man who performed the ritual upon in, then it was sent back to Chester. In August of 1942, He put this uniform on and boarded a ship to New Caledonia carrying with it the power of the prayer shield to protect him from the harm that would be inflicted.
His services were used on Guadalcanal, Guam and Peleliu. Chester returned home and was honorably discharged from the United States Marine Corps in 1945 as a Corporal. He returned to serve two years in Korea.
After his military service, he attended the University of Kansas where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree. He went to work for the next 25 years painting murals at the VA hospital In Albuquerque, New Mexico. He returned, in his retirement, to the reservation in Arizona where he outlived all but two of his children.
Yesterday, we lost Corporal Nez to complications from kidney failure. He was the last living member of this original 29. Rest in peace Cpl. Nez and may you guard heaven’s gates the way you guarded ours.
J’o ako téé’go nise báá
“That’s my journey to war and back.”
– Corporal Chester Nez
For more on the subject or the code talkers in general and Chester in particular, Betty Reid over at azcentral.com wrote a very good article.
The Traditions:Code Talker