Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila (Dutton Caliber, 2012, 320 pages)
Code Talker is the autobiography of Chester Nez, one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers enlisted by the Marine Corps during World War II . Their goal was to develop an unbreakable code to be used in combat in the Pacific Theater. The book chronicles Nez’s entire life, but most of the book covers his early life through the end of WWII.
Nez was born in 1921 and grew up in poverty on a reservation in New Mexico, in a small house withoutlectricity or running water. The book details the challenges of growing up during the Great Depression and discusses the government’s ill-treatment of the Navajos. Nez was required to attend a government-run boarding school away from his family, and was assigned the name “Chester Nez” when he started kindergarten. The boarding school staff was cold and uncaring and refused to let the children speak the Navajo language.
World War II
Nez was in high school when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. A recruiter visited the school and explained that the Marine Corps was developing a secret program. He was looking for Navajos to enlist in support, but he was not allowed to tell them any additional information. Nez readily signed up to defend his country.
Only after completing basic training in San Diego were Nez and 28 other Navajos tasked with developing a code based on the Navajo language. They were the original 29 Code Talkers. The Navajo language had never been written down and it was so complex that only those exposed to it from a young age could become fluent in it.
Nez and his fellow code talkers deployed to the Pacific in late 1942 to employ the code. Nez’s first-hand accounts of battle and the challenges faced while island-hopping are chilling, as he participated in battles at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, and Peleliu, among others, which were sites of some of the fiercest fighting of WWII. Nez was released from the Marine Corps just before the battle of Iwo Jima in early 1945, having served his time.
The book chronicles Nez’s efforts to finish his education, get a job, and start a family, while dealing with the repercussions of two years of constant combat. Nez explains through the book how his Navajo beliefs helped shape him, and then enabled him to deal with life after the war.
The details of the Navajo code were not fully declassified until 1968, 25 years after WWII ended. Only then was Nez able to tell his family and friends exactly what he did during the war. Nez and his fellow code talkers received overdue recognition for their efforts late in life, many posthumously. They were presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2001.
Nez passed away in 2014 at the age of 93.
This story of patriotic service is amazing. Nez was almost shot by fellow Marines and soldiers during WWII on multiple occasions because they thought he was a Japanese soldier trying to infiltrate their lines. He provides other examples of racism and oppression affecting him and other Native Americans throughout his life. Despite all this, Nez and other Navajos eagerly joined the Marine Corps to support their country. It is telling that the code word they chose for the US is “our mother.” Code Talker teaches readers about a piece of WWII history through someone who experienced it first hand.
This review was submitted by Stephen Lepper Lepper is a 21-year veteran of the US Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. He lives with his family in central Massachusetts and can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-lepper.