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“I’m no hero,” Chester Nez chuckles. “I just wanted to serve my country.” Nez grew up in New Mexico, and did not have the right to vote until 1948, and yet chose to serve his country. Born to the Navajo Nation, Nez became a Marine, and one of the original 29 Code Talkers who came up with an unbreakable communications code in the war against the Japanese.

Nez volunteered for the Marines in April 1942, just a few months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Before joining the Marines, Nez had never left Navajo land, except for a commute to the notorious boarding schools. Nez spent his time in the Pacific and recalled his assignment to Guadalcanal.

“I can do this, I thought. I pinched some corn pollen from my meditation bad, touched my tongue, my head, and gestured to the east, south, west, and north, then tucked the bag back into his pants pocket of my fatigues.” Nez was terrified, leaving the boat and dodging enemy fire to get to the island.

“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 Ray wiped at his eyes with both fists.

“you and I, we’re going to get through this,” I said.

Roy just nodded.

I moved by 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.

Nez survived his service in World War II, but was not allowed to disclose his role as a code talker because it was classified and top secret until 1968. Nez recognized the irony of serving his country by using the very language the United States government worked to hard to erase. His descriptions of life in boarding schools is chilling: “the knowledge of constant danger sat lodged in the pit of my stomach like a rock. I tried my best to answer questions correctly, but never knew when a matron would strike. They watched, their dark cold eyes waiting for us to make a mistake, to do something wrong. I was always afraid.”

Yet Nez acknowledged that his learning of English is what enabled him to be a code talker, as the code talkers created a code for English using the incredible complexities of the Navajo language. This code enabled reliable, clear communication for the Americans fighting the Japanese and Nez is proud that he could honor his heritage and his country in this way.

He ends his memoir with the full 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.
In beauty all is made whole.
In beauty all is restored.
In my youth I am aware of it, and
In old age I shall walk quietly the beautiful trail
In beauty it is begun.
In beauty it is ended.

Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila, Code Talker, (New York: Penguin Random House, 2011).

Photo by Jes Cleland on Unsplash

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Mike Romero says:

    Very good article that many are still unaware of the Code Talkers history and the part they played during the second World War. The sacrifice they made to fight for this country through all the discrimination and hypricosy should never be forgotten. They are and always will be the true American warriors.

  • Jay B Rideout says:

    I have a picture of my dad on guard duty with two of the Code Talkers while they’re waiting to get off Iwo Jima.

  • Herb Madson says:

    Did his friend make it. Iam native ojibwa.
    I am so proud of the contributions
    made by our peoples.

  • A.Guzan says:

    I cried whenever I read and hear these stories,because my People was under the yoke of Spain for more than three centuries.and when they left,they behind unimagible poverty.which continúes ofrecer because they took all the good land.their desciendan own útil now days the land.

  • Sherri Meyer-Veen says:

    This is so beautiful it brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing. I will save this Navajo prayer to come back to. Shalom, Sherri

  • Alexander Widrow says:

    Saved the whole world just by being a Navajo.

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