Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker
Chester Nez was the last of the 29 original Navajo code talkers, whose service in World War II contributed greatly to the Allied cause. He passed away last week. RLMG is honored to have recently completed a film about his extraordinary life for the Albuquerque Museum’s new history gallery, Only in Albuquerque.
Chester grew up in Chi Chil’Tah, in western New Mexico. His first language was Navajo. When he was eight years old, he was sent to boarding school to learn English where speaking Navajo was forbidden. In the film, Chester recalls the day one of the school matrons caught him speaking Navajo and washed his mouth with lye soap.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a marine recruiter came to the school looking for Navajo speakers. Along with 28 others, Chester developed a secret code based on the Navajo language. The Navajo code talkers were sent to the South Pacific, where in battle after battle, they transmitted information that the enemy was never able to decode.
Chester reflects on the irony that a forbidden language, one that he was punished for speaking, was instrumental in winning the war. The Navajo code talkers’ role in the war was classified until 1968. And in 2001, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which embarrassed him somewhat. As he says, “I know that I did my duty, nothing more. I had always lived by the Navajo custom which taught that no one should be treated as a hero for doing his duty.”
The film was based on Chester’s autobiography, co-written with Judith Avila, and was narrated by Chester’s grandson, Latham Nez.