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Reflections on the Life of a Native American Marine

November 10, 2015 marks the 240th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Semper fidelis! It just so happens that this birthday falls during November, the month set aside to celebrate the rich history and culture of Native Americans/American Indians. Interestingly enough, while recently doing some research for a media event, I came across a Veterans History Project (VHP) interview shared by someone who was both a Marine and a Native American. It seems apropos to reflect on his life today.

Chester Nez on day of VHP interview, 2003. Chester Nez Collection, (AFC/2001/001/54891), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Chester Nez on day of VHP interview, 2003. Chester Nez Collection, (AFC/2001/001/54891), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Chester Nez was one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, a group that played a critical role in World War II by using a double-encrypted language to communicate during combat. You may remember that they were the inspiration behind the 2002 Hollywood film, Windtalkers, starring Nicholas Cage.
Nez was a high school student living in Arizona when Marine recruiters came to his school looking for Navajos to participate in a special military project. He volunteered and passed all of the required, rigorous training and testing. Despite others’ concerns, he was excited about getting off of the reservation and having an opportunity to serve his country.

People ask me, ‘Why did you go? Look at all the mistreatment that has been done to your people.’ Somebody’s got to go. Somebody’s got defend this country. Somebody’s got to defend the freedom. This is the reason why I went.

Theirs was a top-secret mission—so secret that none of the Navajo Code Talkers, eventually growing to 300 members by war’s end, could speak of it until their work was declassified in 1968. It was then that the world learned of their unbreakable code—devised by using two simple, yet cunning tactics. With the alphabet system, the Code Talkers assigned two Navajo words to represent each letter of the English alphabet, and then rapidly spelled words to transmit messages. For example, the word “ant” would be transmitted as “wol-la-chee.” With the second method, the Code Talkers used Navajo words to represent certain war-related words, without literally translating them. For example, the word “bombs” would be transmitted as “a-ye-shi,” which translates into “eggs.”

I find this fascinating!

Because of Nez and his comrades’ specialized skill set, they often found themselves in, or in close proximity to, very dangerous situations. Naturally he was afraid for his life, especially after one of his training buddies was killed the same day they landed on Guadalcanal. There was even a close call when two American service members mistook Nez and a fellow Navajo for Japanese while they were walking back to an Army communications center. Even then, the Code Talkers could not reveal their secret mission.

We didn’t tell them we were Code Talkers. All we told them was that we were a couple of communication telephone operators, but they didn’t believe us. And this guy stuck a .45 to my head, and my buddy, they held a rifle on him…That was the most scary thing that happened to me. I thought these guys were going to shoot us.

Only after an officer came to the rescue to vouch for them were Nez and his buddy allowed to walk away. That incident taught them to always travel with a non-Navajo service member.

Nez, who also served during the Korean War, shared many more details about his military life during his 90-minute VHP interview. He died at the age of 93 last year; but thankfully, his story is preserved at the Library of Congress for generations to come. I hope you will take some time to explore his collection, as well as the collections of other Native Americans who served.

Search the VHP database to access all 98,000 veterans’ stories at www.loc.gov/vets. While you are at it, download and print a field kit so you can interview the veteran in your life while there is still time.

Happy Veterans Day to all our veterans tomorrow!

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