CODE TALKER: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, as told by Chester Nez to Judith Schiess Avila, is now a best-seller from Penguin/Berkley!
Chester Nez volunteered as a Marine during WWII even though his Navajo people were not allowed to vote. He became one of the men who developed the famed Navajo code, and took it into battle against the Japanese. That code is the only unbroken spoken code in modern warfare.
(Winner of the New Mexico Press Women's Zia Award and the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award. Was read on NPR in its entirety.)
Please scroll down for an excerpt from CODE TALKER.
CODE TALKER: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII
(November 4, 1942: Approaching Guadalcanal)
Nothing ever dried. My damp combat uniform chafed at the back of my neck. Water ran down my forehead and into my eyes. A trickle meandered down my back as I stood on deck in the dark. The railing of the transport ship dripped with rain, but in the tropical climate, its wet surface 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 queasy. But my stomach held steady.
Born to the Navajo Nation, now a Marine – Private First Class Chester Nez – I’d never even seen the ocean before enlisting.
It was good, being able to sail without feeling squeamish. 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 and 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 sailed 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, as a warrior, how could I ignore the fact that my country had been attacked?
I’d volunteered for the Marines just seven months before, in April, 1942, only a few months after the Japanese strike against Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. 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 below several levels to the mess hall, where the taut faces of the other twelve code talkers aboard ship greeted me. We were all dressed the same. Our combat uniforms were a gray-tan color, a bit grayer than the color now commonly called khaki. They consisted of a short jacket and trousers, with a darker brown tee shirt. We carried a poncho that reached almost to our ankles. We had been issued two pair of thick socks, supposed to keep us from developing blisters on the march, and two sets of underwear. Our helmets were a tan-gray color with a cloth covering that had blotches of faded green, tan and dark gray. Those blotches helped them blend in with the terrain – camouflage, the Marines called it. Our boots, boondockers, were made of thick leather. They came up to just above our ankles.
I liked the smell in the galley area, although lots of Marines complained about it. I guess I’ll always be drawn to the aroma of cooking food, after spending my early years in boarding schools. We lined up and joked with the guys who were serving, asking them to give us plenty of chow. Sometimes we got slabs of steak too big for a dinner plate. We placed our trays, loaded with sausage, corned beef, steak and scrambled eggs, on a long, narrow counter and stood to eat. Every time the ship pitched or rolled, the trays slid, moving from one guy to the next and back again. We’d wait for our own tray to slide back, then resume eating.
As I raised my coffee cup, Charlie Begay 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 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 the 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 nineteen 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 the prowess of 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 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 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 thirty-two 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.
We Navajo men moved below decks to the barracks area. We stood around in a random group. One man, probably Eugene Crawford, said a prayer for all of the Marines about to land on the Japanese-held island. Speaking Navajo, he asked that all would survive, of course knowing how unlikely that was. I’m sure the other men added their own silent prayers, like I did. I talked to the Old Man upstairs, asking for protection.
The Marine brass encouraged prayer. I wasn’t sure whether they really believed in its power, or whether they were like baseball coaches who observed every possible superstition. But they approved of our praying.
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 tight 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. But 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. Please protect me. 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 look 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. Then his voice took on strength and determination. “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 lay ahead 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 again. “Just remember your training.”
We all nodded.
I can do this, I thought. I pinched some corn pollen from my medicine bag, touched my tongue, my head, and gestured to the east, south, west and north, then tucked the 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.
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. We drew closer, and the battleships in our flotilla let loose. The roar of huge weapons made our ears ring. Shells, sixteen inches in diameter, plowed into the beach.
As we drew closer, the black smoke, brought in on a heavy, slow wind, settled on my skin, and the sharp smell of explosives stung my nose. 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. It must have been around 8:30 in the morning by then, but everything was gray with rain and smoke.
“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 rope 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 assault 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 shelling from our ships moved up from the beach to the hills, and 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, Hawaii, 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 islands other than Hawaii. 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 sank 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 early morning of August 9th, the Japanese Naval base at Rabaul, 600 miles to the northwest of Guadalcanal, launched every available warship. They arrived at a strip of sea separating Guadalcanal from the Florida Islands to the north, an area nicknamed “The Slot” by U.S. troops, in the dark early hours of August 9th. The U.S. fleet was caught off guard. 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, USS Chicago, 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 when compared to cruisers and battleships. The destroyers acted as scout ships for the fleet
In the dark, the Marines on shore couldn’t be sure what was happening. They prayed that the fireworks meant the ships belonging to the Land of the Rising Sun were sinking. The poetic name “Land of the Rising Sun” was how the Japanese referred to their homeland, especially in relationship to their rival, China, whose huge land mass was located just west of Japan. Of the two countries separated by the Sea of Japan, the Japanese got the sun first.
Given the heavy U.S. Naval losses, “Terrible” Turner had no choice. He withdrew his transport ships along with the unarmed commercial merchant vessels, carrying unloaded supplies and military equipment, that had been recruited to serve the Allies. The next morning those men on Guadalcanal realized they were left exposed, with no air cover and no reserve provisions of food and ammunition. It was a devastating blow for a group of fighting men who had tried to convince themselves that their country was invincible. 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.
Deprived of much-needed food and ammunition, the Guadalcanal operation, originally codenamed Operation Watchtower by Allied brass, became known among the fighting men as Operation Shoestring. Despite their lack of naval support, and despite the fact that the Japanese – who controlled the seas around Guadalcanal – delivered reinforcements of men, food and ammunition, the hungry Marines used every bullet and drove the enemy 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, the previous June.
Assault troops trained to attack and capture a position, not to occupy it, the Marines, nevertheless, held on. They lacked the weapons and ammunition required to defend their position on the airfield, but somehow they lasted until reinforcements and supplies finally arrived. Meanwhile, they knew that their Henderson Field would soon provide a landing place for fighter planes and, after that, larger bombers – like the B-25 and the B-17 flying fortresses.
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 near Lunga Point. 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 1st Marine Division in battle, the brutal fighting had already taken heavy tolls on both sides.
Our Higgins boat swung out over the water and was lowered by a crank mechanism with chains fastened to bow and stern. We scrambled down the rope net, hands and feet flying over the holds. The ship moved on the waves and I swung toward and away from its metal side, holding on for dear life. The rope I clung to smelled strange, a mixture of oil and hay chaff. I tried to remember to grip the vertical lines and step on the horizontal, at the same time making sure I didn’t overtake the man below me. At the bottom of the net we dropped into the waiting Higgins boat. Then an arm-like mechanism unsnapped the fore and aft chains, and we formed a circle with other boats, waiting for all of the landing craft in our assault wave to be manned. Finally we started for shore, with the boats fanned out so we wouldn’t bump into each other.
We men in the landing craft sat, mute. The Higgins boat pitched steeply in the surf as we approached shore. 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. Noise roared, continuous, like the clamor of an enraged crowd. Sharp punctuations – individual explosions – added to the din. 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. He’d been in San Diego at boot camp when I was there, but in a different platoon. I didn’t even know his name. My body went cold. My throat tightened up, and I struggled for breath. My eyes burned with unshed tears. After that, I did my best not to look at the faces of the dead.
With heavy seawater filling our boots and dragging against each step, Roy and I forced ourselves to struggle forward. The killing fields. Our baptism. The word the drill instructors had used in basic training kept running through my head. Baptism. Baptism. Baptism.
Navajo belief forbids contact with the dead, but we 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, some looking more like raw beef than the limbs of human beings, fought our way forward, and finally fell gasping on the beach.
On shore, we attempted to find our assigned unit. Japanese fighter planes – Zeros – flew overhead in a formation that echoed the V-formations of Canadian geese. The Zero no longer dominated Allied fighter planes as it had in the first months of the war, but those bright red disks, sun symbols, on the underside of its wings sent a chill down my spine. I knew those enemy planes carried machine guns, cannons and bombs.
We found General Vandergrift, who assigned us to Signal Officer Lieutenant Hunt. Following Hunt’s orders, we moved to the tree line on the edge of the beach and hauled small folding shovels from our backpacks. Making ourselves as small as possible, crouching at the tree line, 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 from land-based bullets, but nothing would protect us from the bombs and bullets dropping from the sky. Enemy fire exploded around us from every direction. 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.
I was lucky to be partnered with Roy. He was a really good man, serious as can be about our code work. Some of the code talkers joked around a lot, probably to relieve the constant tension. But Roy and I were temperamentally well-suited to each other. The gravity of our code work kept us both pretty solemn, although we appreciated a good laugh when it was provided by one of the other men. Roy was superb with the code. He and I, we never once let each other down.
We tested our radio equipment, with me cranking and Roy speaking into the microphone. Roy nodded. Good. Our TBX radio was unique, a wireless system that generated its own electricity via the cranking motion. Our only wires were the ones connecting the headsets and microphone to the crank box. Other modes of communication used on the islands, both radio and telephone, depended upon the wiring, which was strung by Marine communications men. Our TBX could pick up radio stations, the news, but we weren’t allowed to switch to that. We had to keep communications open for coded messages.
That first night, Roy and I crouched in our foxhole, side by side but facing in opposite directions, so my knee was pushed against Roy’s shoulder and vice-versa. The water crept nearly chest high. Heavy drops fell like bullets, causing the water in the foxhole to splash. 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.”
Although we were supposed to take turns in our foxhole sleeping and keeping lookout, neither of us slept. Gunshots sounded in intermittent bursts, tearing through the dark, soggy night. Blue-white artillery tracers streaked across our field of vision – enemy artillery shells. Our own shells had red tracers. I couldn’t yet distinguish between the sounds of Japanese and American gunfire, but the colors were immediately evident.
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.
Lord, please help me.
I switched to a traditional Navajo prayer.
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.
Prayers were a comfort for me. They gave me confidence. 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 a powerful sky watched the changing seasons, turquoise blue and studded with stark, white clouds – a view you drank in like cold water on a sweltering day.
When I arrive home after this war, I promised 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