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The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII
as told to Judith Schiess Avila
Chapter 1: Guadalcanal Invasion
(November, 1942: Approaching Guadalcanal)
Nothing ever dried. My damp combat uniform chafed at the waist and the back of my neck. I stood on deck in the dark. Born to the Navajo Nation, now a Marine - Private Chester Nez - I'd never even seen the ocean before enlisting. The railing of the transport ship dripped with rain. In the tropical climate, the wet railing was warm to the touch. The ship rolled slightly in the South Pacific waters, a constant unsettling movement that, just weeks ago, would have made me nauseous. But my stomach held steady.
It was good being able to sail the ocean without feeling sick. I tried to concentrate on that, and not on where I was heading. But thoughts seeped into my brain like seawater. Like other traditional Navajos, I'd always believed in the "Right Way." Balance must be found, not only between individuals, but between each person and his world. My hands gripped the rail. The ship's steady progress brought me inexorably closer to Guadalcanal. For three months, battle had raged there. How could I find any balance in that?
I reminded myself that my Navajo people had always been warriors, protectors. In that there was honor. I would concentrate on being a warrior, on protecting my homeland. Within hours, whether in harmony or not, I knew I would join my fellow Marines in the fight.
Below decks, machine guns, earth movers, and other heavy equipment filled the ship's belly. The items we were likely to need first had been packed last so that they would be easily accessible upon landing. Aircraft carriers had preceded our troop ships, carrying dive-bombers to blast Guadalcanal's beach prior to the Marine landing. The transport ship I rode upon was accompanied by destroyers, cruisers, battleships and additional transports.
I squinted. A battleship was barely visible through the gloom off the port side of my transport. A shiver - Pride? Relief? - ran through me. Battleships and aircraft carriers were the largest vessels in the U.S. fleet. On the huge ship's deck, I caught glimpses of a triple gun turret, wielding guns that fired 16-inch-diameter shells. Its dark bulk appeared and disappeared in the pre-dawn murk.
We thirteen code talkers traveling with the fleet were late-arriving members of General Vandergrift's 1st Marine Division. Several regiments of the 2nd Marine Division sailed with us in the transport ships. Our briefing had told us that the capture of Guadalcanal, an island in the Solomon chain off the northeast coast of Australia, was the first stepping stone to an eventual attack on Japan. At Guadalcanal, the Japanese enemy waited.
I could have stayed in high school, I thought. Maybe I should have. But warriors protect their land and their loved ones, so how could I ignore the fact that my country had been attacked?
I'd enlisted in the Marines just seven months before, in April, 1942, only a few months after the Japanese strike against Pearl Harbor. Until joining up, I had never left Navajo land, except for a few hours en route to boarding school. My wiry frame barely met the Marine's minimum weight requirement of one-hundred twenty-two pounds, but I knew I was strong. I straightened and shoved trembling hands into my pockets. I was a man, now.
The ship would not reach Guadalcanal for a couple of hours. I walked to the mess hall, where the nervous faces of the other twelve code talkers aboard ship greeted me.
Wilsie Bitsie jabbed a sharp elbow into my ribs. "Hey, Chester. Sure could use a beer right now. How about you? Pabst Blue Ribbon or Budweiser?"
I chuckled. While in San Diego, on liberty from Marine basic training, we men had frequented bars, wearing our uniforms so we wouldn't get thrown out like other Native Americans did. Many of us had never had a drink before joining the Marines.
"Budweiser," I said. "Always Budweiser." I laughed, shook my head, and resisted the urge to switch from English to Navajo. "That place in San Diego. The Slop Chute, enit?" I glanced around at the other code talkers. "Wish we were there instead of here."
English came easily now, ever since boarding school when we were kids. My fellow code talkers and I knew the white people's words, but among ourselves we generally spoke in Navajo. Because of our mission, we didn't do a whole lot of moving around the ship or mingling with other Marines. Instead, we gathered together on shipboard, practicing our code. Always practicing.
All thirteen of us men had had a hand in designing the secret code, together with sixteen other Navajo Marines, back in the States. Recruited for our fluency in both Navajo and English, we'd been locked in a room after basic training and told to develop a secret military language using our native Navajo. Now, each man was determined that the code would guarantee an American victory over the Japanese in the South Pacific.
"Jackass." I laughed. "Whose idea was 'jackass'?" The Navajo word for jackass - spelled tkele-cho-gi in our code-phonetics - stood for the English letter "J". I looked around at the smooth, young faces of my friends. They all grinned. Whose idea had that been?
The white man's military had accepted us as tough Marines. Hardened by the rigors of life on the reservation or the checkerboard area, we often out-performed our white peers. In basic training, Marine Sergeants bragged about our prowess, Platoon 382, the Navajo recruits. And our code was part of a bold plan to take the South Pacific Islands back from the dominant Japanese.
Cutting through endless ocean toward my first battle, the code's proving ground, my twelve buddies and I studied and re-studied the entire vocabulary of two-hundred-plus words. All of us were fluent, yet we all continued to practice. We could afford no doubts, no hesitation. Accuracy and speed were a matter of life and death.
We practiced transmitting messages among ourselves and to code talkers on other ships. The new language became solid and unshakeable, embedded in our minds as firmly as childhood memories. We transmitted, deciphered and responded to messages almost without hesitation. We were ready. We hoped.
I chuckled 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 relayed 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. But several of the Admirals had been informed of the code developed by twenty-nine Navajo Marines. I guess they finally realized that what they were hearing was that code. Forbidden to divulge this new secret weapon, they simply spread the word to other high ranking officers that a group of Native Americans had joined the Marines. And the United States Marines were speaking Navajo.
Four or five miles north of Guadalcanal, everyone gathered on deck in the rain. I looked around at my fellow code talkers and wondered whether my face was as taut as theirs. A couple made jokes in Navajo, ribbing the rest of us. The laughter was muted.
The 2nd Division Marines and we late-arriving 1st Division Marines were briefed on what to expect in the water and on the island when we landed. I promised myself I would be brave. The air vibrated with apprehension.
A chaplain addressed us, reciting a blessing. I held the small buckskin medicine bag my father had sent and said my own silent prayer. Give me courage. Let me make my country proud. Let me live to walk in beauty. Around me the other Navajos seemed to be doing the same, each hoping to "walk in beauty" again in their native homes in Arizona and New Mexico.
After the chaplain spoke, a high-ranking officer - either a colonel or a general, I can't remember which - stepped up to address us. I nodded at Roy Begay, my partner for the landing, and tried to smile. My tall friend, a skinny frame masking his strength, smiled back, but his expression looked forced. Though we'd been friends since boarding school, I had never seen good-humored Roy looking so scared.
The officer talked straight. "I hate to say this," he said, "but I guess we all know that some of you will not return from this battle. Some of you will never see your families again." He cleared his throat, hesitating. "Always remember, you are defending both your country and your families. The Japanese attacked your land, your home. And now you will make your country proud."
Despite the peril we faced, the officer then tried to put us at ease, tried to help us understand what faced us on Guadalcanal. He spoke like a father talking to his son. "It's okay to be scared," he told us. "It would be foolish not to be scared. And you men are anything but fools." He hesitated. "Just remember your training."
We all nodded.
I can do this, I thought. I tucked my medicine bag back into the pants pocket of my fatigues. When the officer stopped speaking, I walked off by myself. One of my buddies called my name, but I kept walking, pretending not to hear. I thought about my father and grandparents, my younger sister, Dora. I pictured the dazzling sun of New Mexico and wished I could feel its dry warmth baking my skin. I thought of the air there, so pure and clear. I whispered a prayer of beauty:
In beauty all is made whole.
In beauty all is restored.
I thought about what I was to face, wondering whether I'd be one of the men to die. It was five o'clock in the morning, November 4, 1942, the most terrifying day of my life to date.
We approached the northern shore of Guadalcanal. Gray tones of daylight revealed black smoke drifting thick over the island. I offered silent thanks to the Navy's pilots who had bombed the enemy, hoping to drive them away from the shoreline where we Marines planned our landing.
As we drew closer, the black smoke settling on my skin, I saw a helmet floating in the water. I tried not to look too closely, not wanting to see whether it was American or Japanese.
My buddy Roy and I watched as the first wave of men, laden with gear, climbed down heavy nets to their landing craft.
"We can do that," said Roy quietly. "Nothing to it."
"Ouu," I said in Navajo, biting the word off like the English word "oat." Yes.
Of course we had practiced landing: the climb down the nets, the rifle, the grenades, our packs jammed full of the necessities of war. But this time enemy fire tore into the water and ricocheted off the ship. Men cried out - wild, startled shouts. Our legs trembled and hands shook. Nothing was the same.
We code talkers did not disembark in the dangerous first wave. Apparently, Marine command deemed our mission too critical. As we looked on, the landing boats filled, forming a circle offshore and waiting until all the craft in the first wave were manned. Then the boats hit the island all at once.
It will get better, I told myself, once we're in the Higgins boat, once we're moving. But everyone in my landing crew, the third wave, looked real worried.
I remembered our briefing. The Japanese were winning in the South Pacific. Our fleet in Pearl Harbor had been the one deterrent to Japan taking over all of the South Pacific islands. And now that Pearl Harbor had been crippled, the Japanese were clearly dominant. The United States had no bases on the islands. Bases and airfields, both needed for refueling craft and provisioning troops, were critical if the United States was to eventually attack the island monarchy of Japan.
The United States' strategy was to conquer the South Pacific islands one at a time, thus becoming the commanding force in the area. So, three months before, on August 7, 1942, the 1st Marine Division - without us code talkers - landed on a very different Guadalcanal. Back then only 2,200 Japanese occupied the island. Most were not soldiers, but construction workers building an airfield.
That first landing of the Marines met with little resistance from the construction workers. But Japanese forces reacted quickly, planning an air attack to be launched within two hours of the U.S. landing. A volunteer Australian "coastwatcher" sent warnings to the U.S. military one hour ahead of the Japanese attack. The Japanese sunk an American transport that carried supplies for the troops. Under heavy enemy fire, Admiral Fletcher withdrew his three aircraft carriers, despite protests by Rear Admiral R. K. "Terrible" Turner who was in charge of moving ammunition and provisions ashore to supply the U.S. fighting men.
During the night of August 8th and the morning of August 9th, the Japanese Navy arrived at a strip of sea separating Guadalcanal from the Florida Islands to the north, an area nicknamed "The Slot" by U.S. troops. The Japanese sank two of the five Allied cruisers that sat off Guadalcanal's north shore. The cruisers' role was to protect transport ships which supplied the Marines on the island. They held crews of upwards of 1000 and, depending on their class, varied over a range of sizes. The loss of a cruiser was devastating. Two more Allied cruisers were so badly damaged that they were abandoned. The fifth cruiser sustained sufficient damage to put it out of action.
Two American destroyers were also badly damaged. Originally a class of ship designed to destroy torpedo boats, destroyers carried both torpedoes and depth charges. They utilized these weapons in attacking larger ships. Destroyers were small and inexpensive to build, at least as compared to cruisers and battleships. The destroyers acted as scout ships for the fleet.
Given the heavy U.S. losses, "Terrible" Turner had no choice. He withdrew his transport ships. The men on Guadalcanal were left exposed with no air cover and no reserve provisions of food and ammunition. The battle, dubbed the Battle of Savo Island, was the worst Naval defeat endured by the United Sates in 130 years. And the Japanese had lost no ships.
Despite their lack of naval support, the hungry Marines used every bullet and drove the Japanese from the airfield. They hung a banner that announced "Under New Management," and in two weeks they completed the work begun by the enemy, christening Henderson Field on August 20, 1942, in honor of Major Lofton R. Henderson. Henderson, a dive-bomber squadron leader, had been killed at the Battle of Midway, the westernmost of the Hawaiian Islands.
But the Japanese did not let go of Guadalcanal. Their war strategy depended upon the Guadalcanal airfield as a supply base. The enemy persisted in defending the remainder of the island, bringing supplies and reinforcements from Bougainville, a large island to the northwest. Enemy ships maneuvered "The Slot" in the dark of night. These night attempts at re-supply became known as "The Tokyo Night Express."
By the end of the third week of August, approximately 1000 Japanese reinforcements, fighting under Colonel Kiyono Ichiki and eager to kill for their Emperor, had landed at Taivu, situated twenty miles east of the American-held beachhead. These men, expecting an easy victory, were defeated by Major General Alexander Vandergrift's 1st Marine Division.
In mid-September Japanese Major General Kawaguchi landed with 6,000 more Japanese troops. They, too, were defeated by American forces at the battle of Bloody Ridge, just south of Henderson Field, on September 13th.
By mid-October, the Japanese had delivered 20,000 soldiers to the island, including a full division of the Japanese Seventeenth Army, led by Lieutenant General H. Hyakutake.
When we code talkers arrived in early November to join the amphibious 1st Marine Division in battle, the brutal fighting had already taken heavy tolls on both sides.
(November 4, 1942: Guadalcanal)
We men in the landing craft sat, mute. Our Higgins Boat pitched steeply in the surf. Nearly flat-bottomed, with a rectangular shape and only a four-foot draft, the boat was able to pull up close to the beach. Although the craft was open on top, a metal armor plate along the sides made it partially bullet-resistant. Roy and I rode side-by-side. Roy's good-natured features had frozen in a blank expression.
When we neared the beach, a Marine unlatched the ramp that formed the bow of the boat. The hinged ramp opened, and we rushed down into chest-deep water, holding our rifles above our heads in the continuing rain. Japanese artillery shells exploded around us. Bodies of Japanese and American soldiers floated everywhere. I smelled death, as bullets sliced into the water. Blood stained the tide washing onto the beach.
A Marine floated nearby, his sightless blue eyes staring up at a foreign sky. I had spoken with him only moments before entering the landing craft. I didn't even know his name. With heavy water filling our boots and dragging against each step, Roy and I forced ourselves to struggle forward.
Navajo belief forbids contact with the dead, but Roy and I waded through floating bodies, intent on not becoming one of them. Close your mind, I told myself. I tried not to think about all those dead men, their chindi violently released from this life. I am a Marine. Marines move forward. I tried to make myself numb.
We pushed bodies and parts of bodies aside, fought our way forward, and finally fell gasping on the beach.
On shore, we found our assigned unit. We hauled small folding shovels from our backpacks. Making ourselves as small as possible, crouching on the beach about 150 yards from the surf, we performed our first battle duty: digging foxholes. Every feverish thrust and twist of the shovel brought us closer to crude shelter. Enemy fire exploded around us. Rainwater filled the holes as we dug.
"All those bodies in the water," I said to Roy.
I stabbed my shovel deep into the sand. "We didn't really have a choice."
I tossed the shovelful of sand. Neither of us needed to say more. It was good, having Roy with me. Roy understood.
That first night, Roy and I crouched in our foxhole, side by side but facing in opposite directions, so my knees were near Roy's shoulder and vice-versa. The water crept nearly chest high. We two desert boys had heard tales of rain like this.
I bumped Roy's arm with my knee. "Remember in boarding school? The white man's Bible," I said.
"All this rain." Roy chuckled. "Yeah. Noah and the flood."
"Ouu. Noah." I hesitated. "I'd volunteer to board his ark right now."
Neither of us slept. Gunshots sounded in intermittent bursts, tearing through the dark, soggy night. In the heavy murk, I tried to picture myself back home in sunny New Mexico.
"Do you think we'll be scared like this all the time?" Roy asked, his voice breaking.
I answered simply. "Yes."
Roy sighed. "I'm going to pray," he said.
Hot tears burned my eyelids, and I noticed that Roy wiped at his eyes with both fists. "You and I, we're going to get through this," I said.
Roy just nodded.
I moved my lips, making no sound.
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me I walk.
With beauty behind me I walk.
With beauty around me I walk.
With beauty above me I walk.
With beauty below me I walk.
My prayers brought me back home to Chichiltah, and I walked with the sheep in the place whose name meant "Among the Oak Trees." I could picture it so clearly. The view from Grandmother's land was beautiful in all seasons. Patches of bright green in spring, with the new buds on the oaks and scrub oaks. Masses of silver-green in summer, with the chamisa and sagebrush growing as tall as a small adult. Splashes of gold and red in autumn, when the oak trees changed color. Red and white in winter, the snow deep and nourishing over the brick- and tan-colored soil. And always, the low purple-red mesas watched the changing seasons, way off in the distance - a view you drank in like cold water on a sweltering day.
When I arrive home after this war, I told myself, my father will be happy to learn how the Navajo language helped the troops. My family will be proud of my part in developing the top secret code. I just had to make it through, so I could see Chichiltah again.
I smiled, remembering the sheep and goats, the sound of their bells. The baby sheep and goats wore jingle bells, and the adults a kind of small cow bell, nothing too loud, just enough noise to reveal their location if they wandered off. I loved the sound, like soft chimes in the dark. Maybe, if I concentrated, I could block out the gunfire and hear, instead, the bells.