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"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." (Video Interview, 1:13:33)

   Chester Nez
Collection image
Chester Nez [2003]
War: World War, 1939-1945; Korean War, 1950-1953
Branch: Marine Corps; Marine Corps
Unit: 1st Marine Division; 3rd Marine Division
Service Location: Camp Pendleton, California; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands); Bougainville Island (Solomon Islands); Guam (Mariana Islands); Peleliu Island (Palau); Pacific Theater; also: Korea
Rank: Corporal
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During World War II, Marine recruiters came to a high school in Tuba City, Arizona, in search of Navajos to participate in a secret program. Chester Nez was one of the young men who volunteered, and he passed through rigorous training and testing to become one of the Code Talkers, who used their native language to confound Japanese who were intercepting American communications. Nez outlines in detail how 29 young recruits assembled a complex code that helped win the war. He recalls being mistaken for the enemy and having a gun held to his head by an overeager soldier.

Interview (Video)
»Interview Highlights  (8 clips)
» Part 1 
Download: video (90 min.)
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»Willing to Serve: American Indians
 Video (Interview Excerpts) (8 items)
Marine Corps recruiters came to his high school campus; he and his roommate decided to join; wanted to leave the reservation “to see something different,” to defend his country and his people. (02:48) A lot of Navajo recruits didn't have a good education and didn’t speak English well; when he started training at Camp Elliott, the number had been winnowed down to 29 Navajos; near the end of training, major told them about the nature of their mission and how they would develop a code in their own language; he left them on their own and they spent the rest of the day working out how the code would operate; would use animal, bird, and sea creature names; for example, a whale could stand for a torpedo or a battleship; did not know at the beginning what a big secret this project was. (09:34) On August 16, 1968, he saw an article in a newspaper about the code; when they were discharged, they were told not to talk about the code, and this was the first time it had gone public, because the information had been declassified. (01:49)
Landing on Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division; had left San Diego with no announced destination; he began wondering why he had joined the Corps and whether he would make it back; buddy he trained with was killed on first day they landed; camaraderie with other Navajos helped ease his fears. (09:34) Mistaken for Japanese; he and a buddy stopped by a couple of Marines; one held a .45 to his head and the other was holding a rifle on his buddy; his C.O. cleared it up; Nez thought they were going to be killed. (01:41) Carried a TBX radio for a time, then walkie-talkies; on Bougainville, creating Navajo fry bread, batter mixed in a steel helmet. (04:06)
Wants younger generation to know about Code Talkers. (00:44) Was mistreated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the boarding school he attended; small rations; told not to speak their own language; that was what was satisfying about his service and the Code Talker program; unhappy about past mistreatment of Indians; still, if he were younger, he would volunteer to serve in Iraq because somebody has to defend this country. (05:13) 

Home » Chester Nez
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
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