He had never seen an ocean before enlisting in 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor.
He had herded sheep with a slingshot.
At 122 pounds in 10th grade, he barely met the minimum weight requirement for the Marines. But his thin frame — and, after an impoverished childhood on a reservation, healthy appetite — was a plus on a boat approaching Guadalcanal.
“I liked the smell in the galley area, although lots of Marines complained about it,” he wrote later. “I guess I’ll always be drawn to the aroma of cooking food, after spending my early years in boarding schools where I was never able to eat what I wanted, when I wanted, or as much as I wanted.”
At one of those boarding schools, he’d had his mouth washed out with soap for speaking his native tongue.
But Chester Nez would help design a code based on Navajo that proved invaluable in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Nez, the last of 29 Navajo “code talkers,” died Wednesday. He was 93.
Born in 1921, Nez grew up on “the Checkerboard” — an area near the Navajo reservation that crosses the borders of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
After more than a century under the U.S. government, life wasn’t easy for indigenous Americans. As the co-author of Nez’s memoir explained, quoting Nez:
“We could go for three or four days without eating,” Chester recalls. “Everything always comes last to the Checkerboard. My sister Dora’s house is wired for electricity, but she still has no power. They say it is coming soon.”
That was in 2007 … [Dora] died in 2008, still with no electricity.
After a missionary’s son who had grown up among Navajo argued their unwritten language’s complex syntax could build a great code, the Marines decided to recruit young men fluent in Navajo. About 250 responded.
“They wanted to recruit Navajos,” Nez said. “They didn’t say why or anything like that. I said, ‘Let’s go and see what’s on the other side of the hill.'”
Nez was one of 29 selected to create a code the Japanese couldn’t break. For months on a base in California, they worked as the war raged.
The language they created was sometimes ribald. As Nez explained in his memoir, “the Navajo word for ‘jackass’ — spelled tkele-cho-gi in our code phonetics, stood for the English letter J.”
The L.A. Times explained further:
Because the Navajos had no words applicable to modern warfare, they settled on hundreds of descriptive words in their own language. A tank was a tortoise; a submarine, an iron fish; a dive bomber, a chicken hawk; a grenade, a potato; a battleship, a whale. Bombs were eggs, and the commanding general a war chief.
Code talkers participated in every Pacific Marine assault between 1942 and 1945. Nez was part of fierce battles at Bougainville Island and Peleliu Island, among others. During the battle of Iwo Jima, code talkers relayed more than 800 messages in the first two days of fighting without making a mistake — and the Japanese never cracked their code.
But the code talkers had a problem that didn’t involve Emperor Hirohito’s forces: To many other Marines, Nez and his compatriots looked and sounded like the enemy.
Another problem: Their mission was classified.
“Quite a few Navajo guys were mistaken for Japanese,” Nez said. American soldiers once even held him at gunpoint.
“They were holding the .45 at my face so close it seemed like a 16-inch naval gun,” he remembered.
He explained further in his memoir:
I smiled to myself, thinking about the shipboard radio operator who’d heard the strange code and warned his commanding officer that the Japanese had broken into U.S. communications. Apparently, officers on the flotilla of ships around us compared notes, wondering if communication security had been breached. They shut down all U.S. communications in order to isolate the Japanese transmissions. They heard only silence.
When communications resumed, we Navajos started transmitting again. We related information about the landing craft and the groups of personnel who would populate each craft for the imminent landing on Guadalcanal.
Not even our shipmates knew of our secret communications mission.
The code talkers’ work remained classified until 1968 — after Nez had returned from World War II and served in the Korean War. He even kept the secret from his family.
“In my generation, we didn’t hear anything about it,” Michael Nez, his son, told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “When I was school there was nothing in social studies or in history books about the code talkers.”
One day when Michael was about 12, his father was able to tell him the story.
“Being 12 years old, you really don’t understand the magnitude of what these guys did in World War II and what the war was about,” Michael said. “He didn’t brag about it.”
Nez retired in 1974, but was honored a generation later, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001. “Windtalkers,” a 2002 film starring Nicolas Cage, was based on the code talkers’ story.
“The code talkers were sworn to secrecy, an oath they kept and honored,” said former New Mexico U.S. senator Jeff Bingaman, who sponsored the legislation awarding the medals. “But that secrecy robbed them of the nation’s gratitude and [the] place in history they rightly deserved.”
“I often thought we’d never get recognized,” Nez said when he received the medal. “This is one special occasion for us.”
Nez, a painter, earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University in Kansas in 2012. He died in Albuquerque of kidney failure.
Michael Nez said his father was sometimes criticized for defending the nation that had done his people wrong, but “was very proud of what he did.”
“Dad said, ‘Well I did it for my family,'” Michael said. “‘I did it for the people of the United States and Mother Earth.'”