Chester Nez was born on January 23, 1921, in Chi Chil Tah, New Mexico to the Navajo “Black Sheep Clan.” This was a difficult time for the Navajo Nation, and tensions were tough between the U.S. and those living on the reservations. Many children were taken off the reservations and placed into boarding schools, where they were forbidden from speaking their native language.
It was from one of these schools that Nez enlisted into the Marines. He lied about his age to meet the enlistment requirements, and initially kept his decision a secret from his family.
After enlisting, he was assigned to the 382nd Infantry and to Camp Pendleton in San Diego. He and 28 other enlisted Navajo were given the task of creating a communications code based on their native language. The code developers relied on everyday Navajo words to make the code easy to learn and understand between code talkers.
“I was very proud to say that the Japanese did everything in their power to break that code but they never did,” Nez told Stars and Stripes last year before an awards ceremony held by the American Veterans Center.
Nez was eventually sent to Guadalcanal, and also fought in Palau and Guam. At the end of the war, he received an honorable discharge, but returned to active duty for two years during the Korean War.
After the Korean War, he attended the University of Kansas and studied commercial arts. Times were tough for many code talkers after leaving active duty, however. According to Stars and Stripes, many faced outward discrimination instead of being thanked for their service. Many suffered from post-traumatic stress and received little support, and some turned to alcohol and living on the streets.
In 2011, his memoir, Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII was published.
Nez died June 4, 2014 in Albuquerque, New Mexico from renal failure. He was 93 years old.