Chester Nez, one of the men tasked by the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II to develop a code based on the Navajo language died today, Wednesday June 4, at 93 in his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico of kidney failure.
In honor of his life, Navajo President Ben Shelly has ordered flags lowered across the reservation from sunrise Thursday to sunset Sunday.
The legacy that Nez left behind is one of pride, honor, and dutiful service. He was only in the 10th grade when he lied about his age to join the Marines. During this time, the Japanese had proven resolute in their code breaking capabilities, and so it was decided that a new one should be created using the Navajo language as the basis. Nez and 28 others were chosen to develop such a code, spending a total of 13 weeks, and returning with a glossary of over 200 terms and a full alphabet.
Nez grew up in Two Wells, New Mexico on the eastern end of the Navajo Nation, growing up speaking his native tongue, and learning English while attending school. In those years, Nez's mouth was washed with soap for speaking Navajo according to the report by ABC News.
In honor of their service, the original 29 code-talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001; Nez, however, according to various news reports, joked about pawning.
The 382nd platoon was not the only group of code talkers to have served the U.S. military, but the work that the Navajo Marines that came from the dedication and discipline set forth by Chester Nez is an unforgettable legend. Major Howard Connor of the 5th Marine Division, had six such code-talkers accompanying his unit during The Battle Of Iwo Jima, and is quoted as saying: "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." The team managed to send 800 messages without error during the combat action.
Throughout the war, the Japanese were never able to successfully break the Navajo Code, but the mission was not declassified until 1968; long after their service with the military had ended. Up to this point, Nez and other marines were unable to talk about the specifics of what they did to save lives and ensure clarity in communication. His time in service instead would be recorded in his memoir Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII by himself and Judith Avila who assisted in its publication.
The movie Windtalkers (2002) would later attempt to faithfully represent the Marines, particularly the code talkers, who served during The Invasion of Saipan. Chester Nez said the film was around 78 percent accurate, but commented that the Navajo spoken by Adam Beach was difficult to understand, though, "he tried his best.
Chester Nez, the last of the Navajo code talkers will never be forgotten for what he contributed throughout his service. Following WWII, he would go on to volunteer two more years to continue serving in Korea. He retired in 1974 after a 25-year career as a painter at the Veterans affairs hospital in Albuquerque.
Although it would be some time before the Navajo people were even given the right to vote in country, Nez gave his best years carrying his colors across the island hopping campaign, and in Korea.
A public viewing is scheduled for Monday, June 8, in the evening in Albuquerque, and a Mass is scheduled for the following Tuesday. Chester Nez is scheduled to be buried after at the Santa Fe National Cemetery in New Mexico.