Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WW II by Chester Nez with Judith S. Avila
Chester Nez was one of the original 32 (some say 29, but Nez informs the reader otherwise) Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. He died two years ago. Thankfully, several years before Chester’s death, Judith Schiess Avila spent eighty hours interviewing both Chester and his son. As she states in her prologue to Code Talker, she had originally hoped to write a biography of Nez. But as she worked, she understood that the book should be a memoir, in Nez’s own voice.
Code Talker is a powerful story not only of heroism, but of racism, of language and of culture; of overcoming adversity and of how one man continued to ‘walk in beauty’ despite the dangers of war, his battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the tragic loss of three of his children.
Nez grew up in New Mexico in what is called the ‘Checkerboard,’ an area outside of the Navajo Nation that was populated by Navajo Indians, whites and Latinos. It was a hardscrabble life. His mother died when he was a small child; he had no electricity, sewage or running water. What he did have was a loving extended family, spiritual grounding, and the narrative culture of his tribe. Nez was a great lover of story.
As a child Nez was sent to a boarding school for Indians. There he was underfed. A major goal of his education was not just to learn English but to forget his Navajo language and culture. Physical punishment was the norm for any infraction of the rules. In fact, life there was so difficult (and he was so hungry) that his father decided to send him and his sister to another school. That, too was a boarding school in that it was far away and the children could only go home for holidays. It was pretty rough, but less so than Chester’s first school.
Thankfully, Nez learned perfect English without forgetting his Navajo language. When the United States entered World War II, Nez was in high school. A Marine recruiter came to the school looking for Navajo men who were fluent in both languages. Even though Nez had been treated like a second-class citizen–his family’s livelihood had been threatened by government policy; he was required to have an identification card, but Navajos in New Mexico were not allowed to vote–Nez and others volunteered. After basic training, they learned that they would have a special mission–using the Navajo language, which was unwritten, as code to transmit vital military messages, messages that could save American lives and help to defeat the enemy Japanese.
Nez tells the story of being a Marine in World War II, but one with a mission that was so secret, he couldn’t even tell his family, much less anyone else, about it until 1968, when the information was declassified. That’s more than 20 years later. All he could tell people was that the Marines gave him a gun and sent him into battle. This, too, is true–he served in the Pacific theater, first on Guadalcanal, and later on the islands of Bougainville, Peleliu, and Guam. His first day of battle was shocking as he waded to the beach on Guadalcanal through the dead bodies of fellow Marines he had been speaking to only minutes before. Touching dead bodies was a spiritual violation for him, and he had to learn to get used to it. Though he made every effort to maintain his spiritual practices and to walk in beauty, he still suffered from PTSD (called combat fatigue at that time). His family arranged a special spiritual ceremony–an Enemy Way sing–that helped to relieve his symptoms and nightmares. Sadly, Nez’s return from the war was also a return to prejudice that had not marred his experience in the military.
Nez goes on to tell the reader about the rest of his life, which is also really interesting. He and other Navajo Code Talkers finally get the credit they deserve. Nez, as one of the original ‘twenty-nine,’ received a Congressional Gold Medal.
High school housekeeping: Here’s another memoir that is the kind that (I think) the framers of the Common Core were thinking about when they demanded you read more nonfiction. There’s great storytelling, heroic action, and a lot you can learn about history–mostly about WW II in the Pacific theater, but also about life for Navajos in New Mexico during the Great Depression, about Indian boarding school and the tragic policy of trying to eradicate native culture, and more. If you are interested in history, racism, World War II, pastoral life, or just the Code Talkers and what they did, this is a great book. It includes photos, maps of the islands and an appendix that gives the code words. Though an adult title, it’s not particularly difficult to read. It has a wonderful storytelling quality that you’ll enjoy. Give it a try.