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Interview with Chester Nez [10/1/2003]

Chester Nez:

My name is Chester Nez.

Carol Fleming:

Is that your full name?

Chester Nez:

That’s my full name, yes.

Carol Fleming:

Okay. You were one of the first Code Talkers?

Chester Nez:

I was one of the first 29 Navajo Code Talkers that enlisted in 1942. I came out of high school to join the Marine Corps.

Carol Fleming:

Can you tell me how that happened? Where were you?

Chester Nez:

This high school is located in the northern part of Arizona - a place called Tuba City. I was there for about seven or eight months, and Marine Corps recruiters came onto campus, and they wanted some young Navajos to join the Marine Corps - that’s what they were looking for. So, I had a roommate, by the name of Royal Begay, and I told him, I said, "let’s go and join the Marine Corps, and see what we can learn as a serviceman." So he agreed with me and we went and told the recruiters that we would like to enlist in the Marine Corps.

Carol Fleming:

What did the recruiters--were they looking for somebody specific, or just all Navajos to be recruited?

Chester Nez:

They just wanted some young men--Navajos--to join the Marine Corps. They didn’t tell us where we were going to be trained or anything like that, or why they wanted to recruit some young Navajos. The only thing they told us was they needed some young Navajos to join the Corps.

Carol Fleming:

You know Zonnie Gorman? Do you know Zonnie Gorman?

Chester Nez:

Yes, I know her very well.

Carol Fleming:

She told me about you, and she said that her father--when the recruiters were out in the reservation that they had a wagon, and they were playing the Marines Hymn. Do you remember something like that - where they were trying to get the Navajos to join?

Chester Nez:

No, not exactly. It’s just something that came into my mind - that I wanted to leave the reservation, to see what the other people--the way they lived, the way they carried on. To see something different - this was my idea to decide to join the Marine Corps, and on top of that I wanted to do something for my country, to defend my country, and my people, and all the Native American Indians.

Carol Fleming:

So you were aware of the war effort, and you knew all about that?

Chester Nez:

Yes, I did - when I was at this high school the principal--when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December the 7th he called us in that morning and told us all about what’s going to happen. And I guess he knew that some of us would be joining the service. We knew at that time why he got us together and talked about what’s happening.

Carol Fleming:

So you felt as a young man you were ready to go join the effort?

Chester Nez:

That’s very true - most of the guys that I left with from this high school, they all felt that it was something for a young man to defend his country. We thought and talked about as we traveled to Fort Defiance where they had a temporary headquarters for the Marine Corps recruiting station. And I myself felt this was the time to defend our country, and the people.

Carol Fleming:

How old were you?

Chester Nez:

I was eighteen years old when I joined the Marine Corps.

Carol Fleming:

So you had no idea--you knew that there was a war--but you had no idea what your participation would be?

Chester Nez:

No, we didn’t really know what was going to happen, or why they wanted some young men to join the Marine Corps. And they didn’t tell us what our job would be after coming out of boot camp, and we just figured that we were going to fight for our country.

Carol Fleming:

Where did you go to boot camp?

Chester Nez:

I went to boot camp at San Diego Marine base - recruit training station. We spent about almost a month to go through boot camp training, and then they sent us on to a place called Camp Elliott. At that time they didn’t have Camp Pendleton, and Camp Elliott was the advanced training base for the Marine Corps, and that’s where they sent us. At that time they didn’t tell us what our job was going to be. This was just some advanced training for us, after we got out of boot camp.

Carol Fleming:

How did they select 29 of you? Were there more than 29 that volunteered?

Chester Nez:

The first time that they got us together, there was between 150 to 200 young Navajos gathered at Fort Defiance. What happened was that a lot of these young Navajos didn’t have a good education - they didn’t speak good English. And being recruited was mostly based on how you speak English, or if you finished high school, and this was the way they picked the first 29.

Carol Fleming:

Did you--so when you went to Camp Elliott, was that just with the 29? Or were there more to start with?

Chester Nez:

I remember that when we started training at Camp Elliott there was 29 of us - 29 young Navajos. And later on, they claim--I don’t know exactly whether it’s true or it’s just hearsay--there was 30 to 31, but I never saw these two guys besides the 29.

Carol Fleming:

So after the 29 of you were separated out and sent to Camp Elliott, when was it--how did you learn that you had this special mission?

Chester Nez:

We were almost at the end of our training when this major took us into a great big room, and he told us, "You people are going to develop a code in your own language." And this is all he said, he left the room and he locked the door behind him. So we were kind of surprised to think that using our Navajo language, that’s going to be related to all the military equipment - "How are we going to do this?" And we sat there most of a day trying to decide what we were going to name things as the code - to develop this special code from A to Z. And we talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and tried to decide what animals - birds, eagles, lizard, snake, whale, porcupine, prairie dog, all these animals that surround where we live on the reservation that we’d see every day. This is how we decided to make the code - to use these animals.

Carol Fleming:

So did you start with the alphabet?

Chester Nez:

We started with the alphabet, yes, from A to Z. And we talked about A, "what are we going to use for an A?" So we decided a red ant that we see around here all the time. [laughs] That was an A, B we decided to use a bear, C a cat, E an elk, and so on down the line. And we had to make sure this is what we were going to use, from A to Z. And most of the Code that we made up is related to animals, and the birds, and the sea creatures - like the whale, the sharks, just plain old fish. And this is how we made up the Code.

Carol Fleming:

Now I’m kind of curious - you were on the reservation, so where did you learn about whale and shark? Was that through school, when you read--

Chester Nez:

How we decided on this was what we saw--like a submarine was used as a shark, a whale - minesweeper, and a swordfish--what do you call that thing? I can’t remember the name right off the bat--torpedo. It was just things that had something to do with the sea creatures, like a group, and the animals that we see every day, and the birds that fly - eagles, hawks, and stuff like that. We more or less separated them into groups, this is how we picked one at the time to use for different names that were related to military equipment.

Carol Fleming:

How did you all decide? Was it easy to decide on the animals for each letter?

Chester Nez:

Yes, we took a whale - we either had to use it as a torpedo, a minesweeper, a battleship, destroyer, and stuff like that. A whale is something that mostly spends its time in the bottom of the sea, so we decided that the whales, we could use that for a submarine. And a swordfish, we decided that--we’d pick up a name, a creature, and we’d talk about this particular name that we picked--like the whale--and when everybody agrees on it, that’s what we’re going to name a whale.

Carol Fleming:

So did somebody have to teach you all the--did someone instruct you about all the different machinery that you needed to--

Chester Nez:

Mm-hm.

Carol Fleming:

Did you have someone in there with you that was giving you these?

Chester Nez:

You know, that’s the funny part - we didn't’ have anybody. This was something that each of us--the 29 that were sitting right there, each of us--somebody would suggest a name, a certain creature or a bird, anything like that. So we would pick one, and we would all talk about it, "this is how this thing lives, this is how this thing hunts, this is how this thing flies." And stuff like that, or a creature that lives in the sea, or the thing that flies like an eagle - how far he flies, what he does. So we’d get one particular name, and everybody’d talk about it, for maybe half an hour, 45 minutes, "okay, we got this one. Pack down, we can name this." This is how we did it, we didn’t have nobody - no instructor, nobody.

Carol Fleming:

Did you write this down?

Chester Nez:

Yes, we wrote it down. "A, B, C, D, E" - we went like that down the alphabet, all the way down to Z.

Carol Fleming:

So since this was very--did you know that this was very top secret?

Chester Nez:

No, we didn’t know that. We didn’t know that at that time, that this was going to be one of the most important secrets--that we were developing a code--we didn’t know that.

Carol Fleming:

So the things that you wrote down on paper, did your officers--did they guard that closely?

Chester Nez:

They did guard it, everything that we wrote down - when we leave the room, we didn’t take it with us. Everything had to be left there in that particular room.

Carol Fleming:

When did you learn that it was going to be a very top secret thing?

Chester Nez:

I didn’t know anything about whether this thing, the Code that we developed, was going to be one of the most top secret things. After I came out of the service in 1945, I went back to school, finished high school, and came home. On August the 16th, 1968, there was an article in the paper - it said that the Code that we developed was one of the most secret, that we were not supposed to talk about it. And that was--at the time--I think _____ was the one that declassified it. And when I came out of the service, my family, my parents asked me what we did. But when we were discharged, they told us not to talk about what we did - that we used a code in Navajo. "Do not tell your parents, family, friends, or anybody, this is still a secret." So when I came home, my parents wanted to know what we did. And all I told them was, "they gave me a rifle, sent me out to hunt down the enemy." I didn’t tell them I used a secret code, I didn’t tell them I was a Navajo Code Talker. It was a secret, and we were told not to talk about it - and that’s how this thing goes forward so many years until they declassified the Code.

Carol Fleming:

But you knew--during the war, when you were using it--you knew that it was a secret? Is that correct?

Chester Nez:

No.

Carol Fleming:

You didn’t know?

Chester Nez:

We did not know that it was a secret - no we didn’t. All we knew was that we were using a Navajo code to transmit messages, and to receive messages, this is all we knew. We didn’t know if it was a secret - we didn’t, uh-uh.

Carol Fleming:

How did you--did you then teach other Navajos or did they send you--did you go from there to combat?

Chester Nez:

What happened--after we finished the code school, they picked two guys out of that 29 to go and recruit some more Navajos. And this one guy was by the name of John Benally, and John somebody or the other--I don’t remember his name--but anyway there were two Code Talkers that were selected to go back to the reservation and recruit some more Navajos. And they gave them permission to be the teachers, to teach these other young men that were coming in as Code Talkers.

Carol Fleming:

So those two men went back to the reservation and they did not go into combat?

Chester Nez:

No, uh-uh. I guess they stayed there as the teachers for about two or three years, and then they selected five more Code Talkers to be teachers, so there were seven of them altogether. And these two original 29--the two that became teachers the first time around--they left and went overseas, but the other five they stayed as instructors for these other Code Talkers.

Carol Fleming:

So the other five were also part of the original--

Chester Nez:

No, uh-uh, they all came later.

Carol Fleming:

Oh, I see.

Chester Nez:

The first 29 were the first group that went in, then the rest, I think it was between--anyway, from what I’ve heard there was close to 500 Code Talkers, but most of them didn’t see any action. Between 240 and 400 were the ones that went overseas to see some fighting, to see some of the action in the South Pacific.

Carol Fleming:

So how long did you devise the Code? How long did it take to put the Code together?

Chester Nez:

For the first 29, it took us 13 weeks. That’s after we left San Diego--boot camp--to this other place at Camp Elliott, that’s where we developed the Code, and it took us about 13 weeks to develop, to memorize, and be ready to go.

Carol Fleming:

And so what happened at that time?

Chester Nez:

At that time it was in November--late in November--they told us that our job at Camp Elliott making up the Code is all complete, everything is ready. This is where they separated us - 1st Marine Division, 2nd Marine Division, and 3rd Division was just organizing in 1942 - October. October the 13th - that’s when I went overseas. There was twelve of us in my group, the other group was divided into the 2nd Division, and the 3rd was just organizing, some of them went with the 3rd.

Carol Fleming:

So you were in the 1st Division?

Chester Nez:

1st Marine Division - there was twelve of us that made that landing on August the 7th, 1942.

Carol Fleming:

Where was that?

Chester Nez:

Guadalcanal.

Carol Fleming:

So can you tell me about that?

Chester Nez:

When we left San Diego, we were aboard ship going overseas for almost two weeks, and they didn’t tell us where we were going. We just sailed day and night, day and night, and I often wondered why I joined the Marine Corps, "what’s going to happen? Am I going to come home? Or will I not make it back?" A lot of these young Navajos, we often talked about it, what’s going to happen. It took us almost a little over two weeks to get to Guadalcanal. That first morning when we were getting ready to make a landing, the officers that were in charge came got us all together and told us what we were going to do as Code Talkers. There were four of us divided - four of us in a group, different division. Two aboard ship, two on a battleship, cruisers, whatever, and four would go with the first wave to hit the beach. And these twelve of us were divided into four guys to hit Guadalcanal, and that’s where we got baptized. Early in the morning, between 8:30 and nine o’clock we hit the beach at Guadalcanal, and this is where we all found out what it’s like to be in a place where--the killing ground. This is something that I live with to this day - what I have seen. As for the--hard to think about something like that. You lowered the guy you went through boot camp with, trained with, to be one of the casualties. I often think about this - it’s pretty hard. But later, after about two or three weeks, you start to forget what’s going on around you - you know you’re so busy, so busy day and night. You kind of feel that you’re coming to be more or less at ease, you know the planes are flying, the artillery, all the bombings and everything. You kind of set yourself at ease and you start to feel that you’re more or less sure of yourself and what’s going on. And we talked about a lot of things like that on the front line - how many casualties that day, that night. We gathered all this information and we sent it back to the flagship where all the commanders are, and some of the commanders that we were with in the front lines. And most of the guys that I was with, they knew that we had a special job using our own language, they never asked us questions, they never said anything to us, the guys that we were with. And they never mistreated us, we all got along with them, everything was fifty-fifty. And I think that was one of the best things - to know that your buddies are with you at all times, and looked after you. This was something that made everything just perfect when you were in combat - everybody was looking out for each other, seeing that you don’t get hurt, or seeing that you not be one of the casualties, and stuff like that.

Carol Fleming:

So you were one--when they separated you into a group of four, you were one of the two that didn’t stay on the boat, you went into combat on the beach?

Chester Nez:

Yes. When we first hit the beach, it was kind of something that you think about what’s going to happen - how far are you going to go into the jungle? What’s waiting for you up ahead? What’s going to happen? Are you going to be hit, or are you going to be lucky? And all this time, these other Code Talkers, these other three guys that are with me, we stayed more or less close together to talk, to receive messages and everything. And it made you feel that you’re not by yourself, you’re with your own tribe, and you’re talking your Navajo language, and you’re more or less at ease. But if you get separated from your buddies, then by yourself it’s something else, it’s very uncomfortable - you feel that you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you think about those things. And then your mind, it’s just working and it don’t seem like it’s going to let up or something like that - you’re always doing something, that’s what makes things a lot easier for a person to be in a position like that.

Carol Fleming:

Did you ever get separated and were by yourself?

Chester Nez:

We did - most times that we got separated were at night. Sometimes we were told to get out of the foxhole, and we had to use the radio, or if a radio goes haywire or something goes wrong, we had to run as a message-runner - you had to deliver messages at night. There were always two guys working together, and I always remember on Bougainville me and my buddy were told to deliver a message just about four or five hundred yards ahead of us. And the moon was really bright, and we ran back and forth to try to conceal ourselves in the shadows of these great big trees, to dodge--you could see the machine guns going off, and mortar fire, stuff like that, you know? And it is scary then, but we made it back, though. This guy that I guess you talked to him - Bill Toledo? They sent him from the front line all the way back to the shore to deliver a message, and he was telling me about what happened to him. His own buddies almost shot him coming back. [laughs] They thought he was the Japanese, you know? And he was coming back from the shore, back to the communications center, and he said he had to make all kinds of--dodging bullets and stuff like that, mortar fire--but he says he made it back. You know a lot of times we were mistaken for Japanese. I was mistaken for a Japanese when I was attached to an Army division. We did some communication work for the Army, and when we finished and the sun was down and it was getting dark they told us to go back to the communication center. So me and my buddy started walking back and two guys stopped us, and they thought we were a couple of Japanese getting through their lines. We told them, we said "no, uh-uh." We didn’t tell them we were Code Talkers, all we told them was that we were a couple of communication--telephone operators. They didn’t believe us, and this guy took a forty-five and stuck it against my head, and my buddy - they had a rifle on him, and they stopped us completely, and they didn’t believe what we told them. So they finally sent one guy over to the communication center, and the major came over and he told these guys, "these are two of my men, they’re working with us over here at the communication center." And he told these guys, he said, "I want to see you first thing in the morning, report to the communication center." I don’t know what he said to them, but that was the most scary thing that happened to me - I thought these guys were going to shoot us. There were a lot of incidents like that, that happened - quite a few Code Talkers were mistaken for Japanese, it’s very uncomfortable when you get caught like that.

Carol Fleming:

How many campaigns--you said Guadalcanal and Bougainville?

Chester Nez:

The first one was Guadalcanal, the second one was Bougainville, the third one was Guam, the fourth one was Peleliu, and then the fifth one was Angaur. And then when the Korean War broke out, they called me back for another two years.

Carol Fleming:

Really? So you served in the Korean War - doing the same thing?

Chester Nez:

No, uh-uh. They gave me a rifle. They didn’t--some people said that they used the Code during the Korean War, but I don’t really know--I didn’t. I was what they call a regular infantryman.

Carol Fleming:

So when you--you served in World War II, how many years?

Chester Nez:

Altogether is eight years.

Carol Fleming:

The war ended, but you stayed in the service?

Chester Nez:

Yeah, four years in the South Pacific, two years in the Korean War, and two years as a reservist. Altogether eight years.

Carol Fleming:

So when you finished your service in World War II, did you come back and go to school and then go back to the service? Or did you stay in the service?

Chester Nez:

When I came out of the South Pacific they discharged me, I went back to school, finished my high school, went on to an art school in Kansas - Lawrence, Kansas. And I was in the Reserve all that time, so when the Korean War broke out in 1950, they called me back in - ’50 and ’51, then I came back out.

Carol Fleming:

How did you feel about being called back in again, were you ready to--

Chester Nez:

Everything--no, the second time around I didn’t think too much about it. I just felt it was a job to do, it’s just something that we didn't expect to happen, you know? We didn’t expect that something like this would happen again, you know? So when they called me in I said, "I’m ready to go." So I told my parents and some of the people--my relatives--said, "why do you have to go again?! You already spent four years over there! Now you have to go again?" "Well, if Uncle Sam wants me back in, I’ve got to go again." So I said, "bye-bye, I’ll see you guys, or maybe not." My parents really didn’t like that, and some of the people they didn’t think it was right to go again. But I felt it was a job to be done, so I just went back in.

Carol Fleming:

Were you married?

Chester Nez:

Not at that time, no. No, uh-uh. I got married after I came out of Korea - 1953 or ’54, I don’t remember. My wife passed away in 1988, she died a diabetic. I raised four boys and one girl - the girl is gone and two boys is gone, I’ve only got two living. My son Mike here and then my other son lives up here to the northeast - he went in the Marine Corps, he went to Okinawa. [break in recording] You know when you get out of boot camp, you get ten or fifteen days of furlough, but we didn't, they didn’t give us a furlough. We just went from our last training - when we got out of code school we went straight overseas, we didn’t go on a furlough. But after we got out of the service they gave me 45 days furlough - 45 days! Just think. I didn’t do nothing, everything was--when I came home everything was so quiet--so quiet.

Carol Fleming:

Where was home?

Chester Nez:

Between Gallup and Zuni, south of Gallup - a place called Jones Ranch. Just a little ways from there, that’s where--I was born and raised there. And I didn't know what to do, I was kind of lost when I came out of the service. Because one of the hardest things was to get readjusted to your civilian life, you know? It was really hard. No job, no nothing. So one day I was thinking that if I could go back to school, you know? So this one teacher that I knew pretty well, he came by and he said, "I’m going to fill out an application for you to go back to school." So he did and I went back to school, finished my high school, and then I went on to an art school - I spent three and a half years at an art school at the University of Kansas. So after I came out of school, I came home, stayed a few months, then decided to look for a job. And I came here--found me a job over here at the veterans’ hospital, that was back in 1952. And I worked there for 28 years - that veterans hospital over here, I was a painter. And then I got retirement because of my disability - I got disabled, and was kind of getting blackouts, you know? Climbing those tall ladders to do high work, so I just decided to retire. So I retired from the VA hospital.

Carol Fleming:

Was being disabled, was that connected with the war?

Chester Nez:

Yes, uh-huh, yes.

Carol Fleming:

Did you have any injuries during the war?

Chester Nez:

Just my toes when we went through a landing - shrapnel. That’s about it, I was lucky.

Carol Fleming:

Was that the first time?

Chester Nez:

Yeah, the first time.

Carol Fleming:

The very first time?

Chester Nez:

The first - Guadalcanal.

Carol Fleming:

So how did you recover from that?

Chester Nez:

That was a very--nothing broke, it was just sort of like a cut on my toes. All they did was just treat it, wrap it up, boom! I was going again, it didn’t bother me too much. It was on this side. [gestures towards his left side]

Carol Fleming:

So your combat experience--you were not fighting, you were carrying a radio?

Chester Nez:

We had these small radios--they were pretty heavy though--what they called a TBX. And then we had a battery, a smaller battery. This one guy had to crank it up, and the other guy would be receiving on the radio to send messages. Two guys worked these radios - it’s not too bad, you know? A TBX is what they called these radios - pretty good, I liked it. And then later on they used a walkie-talkie - I think that was a lot better than the TBX, they were kind of small, had a long antenna.

Carol Fleming:

What was the most important code that you think you had to deliver, or were they all equally important?

Chester Nez:

They’re all equally important, like if they’re running out of rations of food, ammunition, or they wanted to talk to some commander, or talk to the Navy commanders to lay down firepower in a certain area - this is what you had to talk about all the time, to send messages back and forth. And then towards evening we’d receive how many casualties - how many wounded, and stuff like that. This was all given to us to send back to the commanders aboard ship or in the rear area--the rear echelon--on the shore. We didn’t have a communication center.

Carol Fleming:

Is there any one particular incident that stands out more important in all of the campaigns you were in? Any kind of story that--

Chester Nez:

Mm-hm. I often think about--and it’s kind of funny to me--was the time when we invaded Bougainville. Some of these guys that I was with--the Code Talkers--I didn’t know how they got ahold of some flour and bacon. And these guys, I thought they were just kidding, you know? They said, "Hey man, we’re going to have some fry bread!" And sure enough, they mixed the flour and dough in a steel helmet. They got flour, they got bacon, they got lard--I don’t know what else they got--and they used the steel helmet to melt the lard. And sure enough, these guys made fry bread - boy everybody was so happy to taste the fry bread! It wasn’t a real perfect fry bread, but it sure tasted good, though. I think that was one thing I often thought was kind of funny, to have these guys bring this stuff and then make fry bread - it was real funny. And then another funny thing that happened was early in the morning--the sun was just coming up over the horizon--we could see this Japanese in a fighter plane, and he was strafing everybody. We had just got through eating breakfast, and we were walking away from the area where we had breakfast, and you could see this guy in his fighter plane come strafing. And everybody was diving all different ways, getting behind a tree or something, and I don’t think anybody got hit. And then another thing that we always expected at midnight - Japanese bombers used to come at midnight, right at midnight, never used to miss it. And you could count how many bombs he dropped - you could hear the clicks when they released those bombs, "click, click, click." And the hardest thing, the hardest part was to wait--where are those bombs going to hit? You don’t hear it any more, and you’re in your foxhole thinking, "is it going to hit here or is it going to hit some other place?" Pretty soon you hear the swish - the swish, "they’re coming, they’re coming." Pretty soon, "boom!" You could hear the booms, you could count them, and that was the most scary thing when those guys used to come at midnight and drop bombs. We used to call those guys "Midnight Charlie," those Japanese. And of course another funny part was we were taken for Japanese, you know? There was quite a few guys that got caught - taken for a Jap. There was one story I heard--I don’t know how true it is--this Code Talker was told to take these four Japanese prisoners back to the camp. So he took these four Japanese prisoners with a rifle, marching in. And all these guys were at the camp, and they thought it was real funny. They said, "how come that Japanese is bringing those four Japanese in?" They thought this guy with the rifle was a Japanese, he was a Code Talker, and they thought that was really funny, to see something like that. I don’t know how true that is, but that’s the story, you know? And another story was this Navajo guy--he was with a bomber crew stationed in Alaska--and they were on a run to drop some bombs, they were flying out of Alaska. And he heard us guys talking somewhere--way out somewhere--and this Navajo guy said, "hey that’s my tribe, that’s my tribe! They’re talking Navajo!" And they asked him, "what is he talking about, what’s he saying?" And he said, "I don’t know." Because we were talking in Code, using animals’ names and all that different kind of stuff. He said he didn’t understand what we were talking about. There were a lot of funny things happening, you know? And then after I got discharged, this one Code Talker--I remember him, John Brown, Jr.--he was talking about his bodyguard, he said he had two bodyguards. And each Code Talker, they assigned him two bodyguards to be with this guy at all times - wherever he went and whatever he did. But I don’t remember ever seeing two bodyguards with me, but I knew there was always two guys or three guys around us all the time. They never left us, even when we went to use the restroom, there was two or three guys walking alongside. So that must be our bodyguards, you know? But this is what they told me after I got out of the service. I was born in a place called Chi Chil Tah, translation is "among the oak trees." That’s where I was born, and raised there. My mother died when I was almost a year old, and my dad was the one that raised us until we got to be about seven or eight years old - me and my sister, there was just only two of us children. But the rest were already all grown up and on their own -most of my brothers. And this one Mexican trader, he had a trading post not too far from us, where I was born. He came one day and told my dad, "you’re all by yourself and your wife passed away, and you’re having a hard time with these two kids, why don’t you send them to a boarding school?" So that’s what happened, they took us to a place called Fort Defiance, Arizona - that’s where we went to boarding school. From there, I went on two years at Gallup, New Mexico - I spent two years there in school. And then the following year, the BIA government agency told us that they were going to send me--five of us that were going to school in Gallup, five of us Navajos--they were going to send us to a place called Tuba City in Arizona, the northern part of Arizona. That’s where I joined the Marine Corps from. And after I came out of the service I stayed home, and had my grandmother and grandfather and my sister, we had a lot of sheep at that time - a lot of sheep, goats too. And that’s what I did, I used to help out with the sheep - herd sheep, and take care of the sheep for about four or five years straight. And like I said, this teacher of mine in grade school came by and told me to go back and finish my high school, and that’s what I did. He sent me to a place called Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, and that’s where I finished my high school. And after high school, I decided to go on to school to learn either a trade or something. So I figured I might take some kind of an art study, and I enrolled at the University of Kansas for three and a half years - studied drawing and painting and commercial art. And after three and a half years I came out of school and came back to the reservation. I spent a few more years with my sister at home - my dad passed away when I was going to school, and I helped my sister with taking care of the sheep again for maybe another two or three years. And then I decided to get me a job, you know? So I started looking for a job, I came up here from the reservation to here in Albuquerque. And from here I started looking for work, and I finally ended up with a job up here at the veterans hospital. I got me a real good job at the VA hospital and stayed there for 28 years, and I had to retire in 1974 on account of my health. I met my wife after I retired my job, and we had three boys and one girl - the girl died at birth. And then the oldest boy, he had just graduated and he got in a car accident and he passed away. And then my other son, he was about three years older and he passed away, so I lost three kids and I only had two left - Mike and Ray that lives over here. And my wife passed away in 1984, she died a diabetic. And I didn’t do much after I retired, and after six or seven years they started calling me and sending me out to different places, like Washington, Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Texas, Washington, Boston, New York City - all these places. It had a lot to do about the Code Talkers - we tell stories, give presentations. [break in recording] And I always feel it’s something that I like for the younger generation to know about the Code Talkers, and they’re trying to teach the young kids what it meant for my tribe, and what it means for the younger people, the younger generation, and also the high school kids, to know how we used the language to win the war in the South Pacific. My dad’s Indian name was Hosteen Nez - that means, "a real tall gentleman." And the funny part of that is all his kids were all shorties - we’re all shorties! [laughs] And my dad was real tall - almost as tall as him [points to someone off camera]. And my grandfather, his name was Hosteen Chi Chil Tah, "the man among the oak trees," and his wife, my grandmother, her name was, Asdzaan Chi Chil Tah, "the woman among the oak trees," that was her name. And there are a lot of names among my relatives, mostly Indian names - it’s got something to do with maybe the trees, or the bushes, just like President Bush’s name is Bush, you know? And things like that, the Rock People, the Cave, or the Cloud--the Thunder--all these different names that the Indians have, you know? And sometimes I think about those that--it’s kind of funny how our parents, older people, gave us these names. Like my Indian name is Betoileh (ph), Betoileh (ph) means "a boy on the light side" - just like the sunshine. "The Boy on the Lighted Side," that’s my Indian name. And my sister, her name is Binejee Bah (ph), "The Lady that Went to War Around the Circle." That’s her Indian name that means Binejee Bah (ph). In those days my grandpa and grandma - they were really strict. They tried to teach us, growing up, what’s right, what’s wrong, "don’t say this, act like this," or don’t be a bully, or not to criticize, or not to make fun of anybody. Growing up with something that our grandparents told us--a lot of things as a young kid growing up, you know? If they see us doing something wrong, they always get after us, but they never spanked us, they just told us, "you’re not supposed to do that, it’s wrong for you to do something like that, or tease the animals, don’t do that." This is how our grandparents--every day, every day they always taught us right from wrong--growing up with right or wrong, and what you’re supposed to do. The living conditions were really hard, it was really poor - everything was hard to get, especially in the winter. It was really hard for us, growing up, in the wintertime. You had to do for yourself, especially if you’ve got livestock like sheep or horses or cattle, something like that. When they got snowed in you had to go out and look out for the animals, you know take care of them. And this is one thing - in those times there were no automobiles when I was growing up, there was nothing, no automobiles. What we used mostly was horses, we’d ride horseback. Things like that, you know? For me, my brothers and sisters, my dad--of course I didn’t see much of my mom, I was just a little kid when she died, almost a year old when she died. And we had a really hard time, really hard, we were poor from the beginning and everything was just hard for us.

Carol Fleming:

Did your parents, or did your family visit you, or did you hear from them at all?

Chester Nez:

[chuckles] Nothing! How were they going to come? If you were lucky, somebody that lives maybe five or six miles from the school would come on horseback or walk to the school to visit their kids. But nobody--nobody--if you were close to 60 or 70 or 80 miles away you don’t see your parents for nine months, that’s the honest to God truth. Long way [shakes head], you just stayed in the building, that’s where we stayed.

Carol Fleming:

So in a way they were training you for the Marine Corps, huh?

Chester Nez:

[laughs] I don’t know about--the BIA government school, to think back on how they mistreated us--I often think about those things, how they treated the kids. It was real bad, I mean it was bad! They’d starve you to death while going to school, the food was terrible! A little bit--on your plate, they’d give you just a little bit of everything. Two or three swallows, it’s gone, you look at somebody else’s plate. And some of these bigger guys, they used to come and take your dish away from us, just because they were big guys, rough guys. You’d go hungry all day, it was real bad this boarding school. It was bad, how they used to mistreat us. They told us not to speak Navajo, would punish us for speaking it. But look what happened, "we want some Navajos to join the Marine Corps. You’re going to use your own language - speak Navajo all you want. Make up a code, this is what we’re going to use, this is what you guys are in for." Here, look what happened - they told us not to use or speak our own language, and this is what won the war in the South Pacific. I think about those things, I think about all my people that were mistreated and sent to Fort Sumner - the Walk. Prisoners for almost seven years over there, turned them loose, they walked back. They burned all their crops, destroyed their homes, burned their homes and everything. That’s one reason why I don’t like Kit Carson and Andrew Jackson - I don’t like those people. You go back and read the history about what they did to us - Andrew Jackson said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." The United States was built on Indian graves. I think about those things, it hurts me to talk about, to think about. People ask me, "What do you think about those things?" I don’t like it, I don’t. But if it’s time to do something for my country, if I was 60 years younger I would have been back to go to Iraq. People ask me, "Why did you go? Look at all the mistreatment that’s been done to your people." Somebody’s got to go, somebody’s got to defend this country. Somebody’s got to defend the freedom. This is the reason why I went. I’m proud to say that I went and served my country, this is something I wanted to do. I’ll never forget the rest of the Code Talkers. Not only the Code Talkers, but a lot of these--Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard--all these young people that went to World War II, Korea, Vietnam, all these other small places that they went, and World War I - where our grandparents went. This is the reason I think we still have the freedom, the freedom that we enjoy - nobody comes to tell us what we are supposed to do. Everything is free, "do what you want, say what you want." This is the reason--I think--we went. To be proud to be part of it - this is the way I look at it.

Carol Fleming:

That’s very commendable. When you came back from the war, how were you treated by your other citizens?

Chester Nez:

When I came back, when I got out in 1945 and got home--of course, my parents they were so glad [makes hugging motion] to see that I made it back. They were so happy, proud. And to go and visit my other relatives and friends, they always came up and hugged you and shook hands, and say, "you’ve done a real good thing, you’ve done your job, well done." This was how most of the people--most of my relatives, my friends, a lot of other people that I associated with--they all said something in a good way, that we had done our part. They were proud, as much as I did.

Carol Fleming:

What about Anglo people, how did they receive you?

Chester Nez:

Most of the people that I had a chance to be with when I came back they didn’t say much. They know that we went to defend the country; they knew we’d been there. So they come up to you and they’d ask you questions like, "where have you been? How long have you been there? Are you still in the service or are you discharged?" At different places I went to, like New York, Boston, Texas, Los Angeles, Tucson, Phoenix, they come up to us and all, "Thank you for what you did. Thank you for what you did for us, we’re proud that you went." There’s a lot of thankful--there’s a lot of people that appreciate the servicemen that served their country. They’re always, always happy about it. The civilian life when I came out, it was a little bit different when I came out of the service. For myself, I didn’t know what was coming off, it was so lonely to be on the reservation with my parents after I left the reservation and went all over to these different places. Then I began to find out how proud a lot of people were, to thank me--to thank all the servicemen for what we did. I knew myself that this is something that the people appreciate what we did, and I myself am very thankful towards all the people, all of the races, that they appreciate it, and I know that they know what we did. When I came back on the reservation I spent two weeks at home, and my dad decided to do something for me in an Indian way - to cleanse my body and my self. What I went through, to get rid of all that bad stuff, the bad dreams, the bad thinking. They did a ceremony for me, it took four days. After that was over, then they went and told me that they were going to have a Squaw Dance for me, that Enemy Way, this is something to do with the Japanese. And they found a scalp, a piece of hair and skin, and they took it to that Squaw Dance. The reason why they did that is because I fought the enemy, the Japanese - this is what the ceremony is going to be all about, the killing of the Japanese, and to cleanse myself from the Japanese, the war area where I’d been, the campaign. To cleanse myself, to cleanse my body, to be pure again - this is what they did for me, that was what the Squaw Dance was all about.

Carol Fleming:

So did that--did you feel relieved of it after that ceremony?

Chester Nez:

That’s right. After all this was done for me - the ceremony, the medicine man, and stuff like that, I felt good, I don’t have those bad dreams any more. I used to dream that I got shot, I got killed, Japanese come and lie on my bed - some of them sitting, some of them standing, and say, "let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!" Sometimes I used to dream that I was back over there fighting the Japanese, got shot, got killed, my buddies got killed. This is how all these things used to--[makes circling motion with his hands around his head]--I almost went crazy. When I came back from overseas I was in the Naval hospital for six months - it was so bad that all this stuff was getting the best of me. Bad dreams--wake up screaming, wake up, jump out of bed--it was bad, it was real bad. This is the reason why they had done all these things for me, to cleanse myself from all these bad things that I went through.

Carol Fleming:

Did the Original Twenty-Nine Code Talkers all survive the war?

Chester Nez:

No, ten of them never made it back - the Original Twenty-Nine, ten didn’t come home, they got killed in action.

Carol Fleming:

So some of the ones that were in your division were killed?

Chester Nez:

Yes. Some of them--like this one, there were five of us Original Twenty-Nine not too long ago, almost a year I think now--this one lived in Yuma - Yuma, Arizona. He was a Code Talker, one of the Original Twenty-Nine, he died not very long ago, so there’s only four of us: me, and John Brown lives in Crystal, Arizona, and this one lives in Salt Lake, and this other one lives in Phoenix - there’s only four of us left. We get to see each other once in a while when we get together.

Carol Fleming:

Were any of those four that are still with us--were they with you in your campaign or were they somewhere else?

Chester Nez:

We were all separated. Like Dale June, I think he was with the 3rd Marine Division, and John Brown was with the 2nd, and Lloyd was with the 3rd, and I was with the 1st. They were all separated after boot camp, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Marine Division. And then on to 4th, 5th, and 6th Marine Division, these were all the rest that came after we did.

Carol Fleming:

So do you keep up--after you came back from the war, did you get together with the other Code Talkers often, or did you not see them?

Chester Nez:

I didn’t see--after I came back, I didn’t see these guys for maybe four, five or six years. Until recently--not too long ago--we’ve been kind of getting together, like in Tucson and Phoenix, and--most of us--in Los Angeles, the original five--four of us-this other guy’s in bad shape, he can’t travel any more - he’s really badly disabled. All four of us met in Tucson and some of these other Code Talkers that are still living today. Tucson, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, and then to Washington, and then two or three of us went to New York City.

Carol Fleming:

Tell me about the ceremony where you received the Gold Congressional Medal.

Chester Nez:

There was close to 102 or 104 families to represent the Code Talkers in Washington, DC. This was all organized and we went to Washington, DC, we were all traveling on a Marine Corps transport plane from here, flew to Washington, DC, and when we got there--I think it was on July the 26th, 2001, I think, in the Capitol Rotunda. There was a lot of people there and we sat way up there by the podium and Bush was there, and the Speaker of the House, and these other Senators. And that’s where we got our Gold Medal from the President himself, and I think that was one of the greatest things that ever happened to us, you know, to finally shake hands and get recognition. [break in recording] Here is my grandson Emory [gestures to boy standing next to him].

Carol Fleming:

Are you pretty proud of your grandpa? [Emory nods his head]

Chester Nez:

Bush in Washington, DC [pointing to photograph of Nez saluting President George W. Bush in the Capitol Rotunda] - the other three Code Talkers: Dale June, Lloyd Oliver, myself, and John Brown, Jr. is in the back. Bush, he signed that and sent me that picture. A picture of the four living Code Talkers of the Original Twenty-Nine [points to photograph of Nez, June, Oliver, and Brown with an unidentified Marine at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia], this is one of the sergeants in Washington, DC, this in the background is the flag raising of Iwo Jima, and this is John Brown, Jr., this is Lloyd Oliver, that’s me, and this is Dale June. Of the Twenty-Nine, that’s the four that’s still living. This is the Original Twenty-Nine Code Talkers [shows photograph of the 382nd Platoon at boot camp in San Diego in 1942].

Carol Fleming:

Where was that taken?

Chester Nez:

When we got out of boot camp in San Diego.

Carol Fleming:

Where are you in there?

Chester Nez:

I’m standing right here [points at himself on the left end of the second row] - that handsome buck right there. [laughs] This was my partner Code Talker [points at photograph of individual Marine], he passed away not too long ago, too.

Carol Fleming:

What’s his name?

Chester Nez:

Francis Tsinajinnie - Tsinajinnie, I don’t know what that means [laughs]. Here’s another one that was taken in Washington, DC in the Rotunda, and this was taken by my granddaughter.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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