Code Talker Summary
Code Talker starts off by throwing us readers right smack dab into the action of World War II. (Thanks a lot, Code Talker. A little heads-up would have been nice.)
Before we can even take a breath we're with Chester on board a ship, right before the landing of the American Marines on the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific in 1942, where—history lesson!—the battle against the Japanese is raging. We follow Chester as he disembarks on the island along with his code-talking partner Roy Begay. The Americans are losing the fight for the Pacific islands, which have been taken over one by one by the Japanese after their attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941.
After this dramatic opening to the book, we get a bit of a breather. Chester takes us back in time to the 1920s, to his childhood days on the Checkerboard, an area in New Mexico near the Navajo reservation where he and his family live with his grandmother. The family spends their time herding livestock, cooking, and enjoying each other's company. When they're relaxing, the family tells stories (this was way back in the prehistoric days before TV and internet, after all). The kids gather around their father and grandmother and listen to stories about the Navajo.
Chester's happy on the Checkerboard. But in the late 1920s the family decides to ship him off to boarding school, where he has to go to learn English. Uh-oh. Boarding school is worse than anything Chester could have imagined. It's full of these old, terrifying women called "matrons," who beat the kids when they speak in Navajo. (The kids are only supposed to speak English. How can they speak it they don't know it?) As if the matrons aren't bad enough, Chester also has to spend his time dodging bullying older boys who pick on little kids like Chester.
Thankfully, Chester has a chance to get away from it all during his school vacations, when he heads back home to his grandmother's land. On one of his vacations, the family builds a "hogan," a traditional Navajo house, for Grandmother.
Tragedy strikes our hero when, during one of his summer breaks at home, some sketchy government guys show up and destroy 700 of the family's livestock. This is a huge blow to the family. The livestock is the family's wealth, but the government's decided that no Navajo family can have a flock of more than 100 animals. Why?! Well, the government claims that it's because the animals are over-grazing. But some Navajos think it's just the government bullying them.
In the early 1940s—when Chester's in high school in Tuba City, Arizona—news arrives that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It's war time. Chester and his friend Roy Begay decide to join up with the Marines. They're warriors, after all. Being a Navajo means being a kick-butt warrior, and they're amped to go kick some Japanese butt.
Chester and the Navajo Marines who've been recruited complete boot camp. After thirteen grueling weeks, they think it's time for a break. But nope. A Marine officer tells them that they've been recruited for a secret mission: they're going to develop a top-secret military code that will be used to transmit messages between American troops in the Pacific.
Chester and his buddies work for another few weeks developing the code, and when they're done, they're shipped straight away to the Pacific, to take part in the battle between the Americans and the Japanese.
Okay, by now we're back to the beginning of the book, chronology-wise. On the island of Guadalcanal in 1942, where the battle between the Americans and the Japanese is raging, Chester and code-talking partner Roy Begay are thrown into the thick of things. They use the Navajo code to pass messages between Marine troops. The code is a big success, and the Marines manage to take the island in early 1943.
After the tough battle for Guadalcanal, you'd think that the Navajo Marines would get a break. They deserve one, that's for sure. But instead, in 1943, they're shipped off to the next island, Bougainville, where they use the code to help the Americans win back the island from the Japanese. After that, it's off to the island of Guam, which the Americans also take over. And after that, it's off to the islands of Peleliu and Angaur.
Will these guys ever get a break?
Peleliu is the toughest battle that Chester and his buddies have to fight through. The Japanese are well fortified on the island, having built tunnels and caves all over the place. The beach that the Marines take over is exposed to enemy fire. It takes the Marines and the Army almost two months to kick the Japanese off the island, and Peleliu is officially secured in November 1944.
By this point, Chester and buddies have given up on the idea of getting a break. They hear that their next assignment will be the island of Iwo Jima, which the Americans hope to take over and use as a steppingstone for an attack on Japan. But just as he's expecting to get called up for the assignment, Chester hears that's he's going to be discharged. He's done his duty, and he can go home. Phew. About time.
Chester heads back to the Checkerboard, but things aren't as easy as he'd hoped they would be. He's haunted by all the horrible stuff he's seen during the war, and he keeps getting nightmares. What's more, he and the other code-talking Marines have been instructed that they have to keep the code a secret. So poor Chester can't even tell his family what he's really been up to in the Pacific.
After a couple of years on the Checkerboard, Chester decides that it's time to leave home. He still has to finish his high school diploma and go to university. At the University of Kansas, he meets Ethel, and soon enough they decide to get married. They move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they settle down and start a family.
Two of their kids die as babies. This is really tough on the family, but Chester, being the resilient guy that he is, keeps it together.
In 1968, twenty-three years after the end of the war, the military declassifies the secret Navajo code. Chester can finally talk about it with his family. When his dad finds out about the code, he's really proud of his son. People begin asking Chester to come and give talks, and he becomes something of a celebrity. In the meantime, his marriage to Ethel falls apart. They decide to get a divorce, and Chester gets custody of their four sons.
In 1974, tragedy strikes again, when Stanley, Chester's twenty-one year old kid, dies in a car accident. Chester's devastated. He moves back to live on the Checkerboard with his sister Dora, and after a few years returns to Albuquerque, to live with his son Mike and his family.
But it all ends well for Chester: in 2001, he and his code talking buddies, the "original twenty-nine" (a bunch of whom have died by this point, of course), are awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their service. The book ends with a big celebration that's held for Chester by his family and friends. He's now officially a hero. Hurrah!
Guadalcanal Invasion: November 4, 1942: Approaching Guadalcanal
- Get ready to be thrown headfirst into the action, Shmoopers. You can catch your breath later.
- Chester Nez, our Navajo Marine here, is on a ship heading to Guadalcanal, an island that is part of the chain of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific.
- The Japanese have invaded the island, and Nez and his Marine buddies are on their way to re-capture it from the Japanese.
- Yup: we're smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Theater of World War II.
- Chester tells us that he volunteered to join the Marines after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941.
- On board the ship, Nez goes to the mess hall, where he meets up with twelve other code-talking buddies. They all want a swig of beer—war is stressful (understatement of the century).
- Nez informs us that the he and the other code talkers on the ship—along with nineteen others—had helped come up with a super-duper secret military code using their native Navajo language. The code was developed as part of a plan to take back the Pacific islands from the Japanese.
- On ship, the Navajo Marines practice transmitting messages to each other using the 200-plus-word vocabulary of the code.
- Their shipmates—the rest of the American Marines who belong to the 2nd Marine Division—don't know about the Navajo Marines' top-secret mission. They think they're speaking Navajo to each other, when in fact they're practicing their super-duper unbreakable code.
- The Navajo Marines, Nez included, head to the barracks area in the ship.
- There, they're briefed on what's going to go down when they land on the island of Guadalcanal. Hint: nothing fun.
- A high-ranking officer addresses the gathered Marines and gives it to them straight: some of the men standing in front of him won't be returning home after the battle for Guadalcanal. Why? Because they'll be dead.
- But hey, it's all worth it because the Marines are defending their country and their families.
- Nez looks over at Roy Begay, another Navajo Marine, who is his code-talking partner. Nez is scared, and he can see that his buddy is too.
- Nez gives himself a little pep-talk. He tells himself that he can do this. He takes some corn pollen from his medicine bag and touches it to his tongue and then gestures east, south, west and north. Why the heck is he touching corn pollen to his tongue and gesturing all over the place? Because in Navajo culture, this is a protective ritual.
- Finally, the ship approaches the northern shore of Guadalcanal. American battleships begin pounding the shore of the island.
- Nez watches from the ship as the Marines of the first assault wave scramble down rope nets, onto boats, and begin making their way toward shore. Sounds simple, doesn't it?
- Nez and his buddies don't disembark on this first assault wave: they wait for their turn.
- As Nez watches the Marines disembarking, he reminds himself of why he's here.
- After bombing Pearl Harbor, the Japanese have basically taken over the Pacific islands. The U.S. has no bases on any Pacific islands other than Hawaii, and they need these bases and airfields established on other islands in order to attack the power-hungry Japanese and stop them in their tracks.
- Nez gives us a bit of background about the fight between the Americans and the Japanese for control the Pacific Islands. The Americans have been losing.
- In August 1942, they'd suffered the worst naval defeat in 130 years, when the Japanese had sunk a bunch of American ships off of Guadalcanal, in the Battle of Savo Island.
- By the time Nez and his buddies arrive on Guadalcanal in November 1942, there have been loads of casualties on both the American and Japanese sides in their fight for Guadalcanal and other islands in the Pacific.
- We return to Chester and his Marine buddies. Now Chester and a group of Marines are on a Higgins boat, on their way to shore.
- They land on the beach, but Japanese artillery shells are flying around and there are explosions everywhere.
- On land, Chester and his buddies are assigned to Signal Officer Lieutenant Hunt. He and his partner Roy Begay are ordered to move to the tree line along the beach to start digging foxholes (a hole that the Marines hide in during battle).
- Chester and Roy test their radio equipment to make sure it's working.
- The TBX radio they'll be using to transmit messages is wireless and is operated by cranking (who has the time to be tripping all over wires in the middle of battle?)
- Chester and Roy crouch in the foxhole the first night (yes, they actually sleep in those holes—not very comfy, we imagine).
- They pray together, and Chester recites a traditional Navajo prayer.
- Chester remembers his home, Chichiltah (which means "Among the Oak Trees" in Navajo), back in New Mexico.
- He remembers the beautiful view from his grandmother's land. He cheers himself up by thinking about how proud his family will be of him when he goes back home.
- He is going to make it back home, isn't he? We hope so.
Sheepherding, Back on the Checkerboard: Mid-1920s
- We get a break from the Pacific theater: this chapter takes us back to Chester's childhood in the 1920s.
- It opens with little Chester, about six years old, waking up to the smell of Old Auntie's coffee.
- The family wakes up: Chester, his two brothers, Old Auntie's twelve-year-old sister, and his uncle.
- Chester's aunt refers to him as "Betoli." We learn that that's his traditional name, and it means "light complexion" in Navajo.
- Chester tells us that he belongs to his mother's clan, the Black Sheep.
- In Navajo culture, clan affiliations are passed down through the mom, not the dad (it's a matrilineal society).
- Chester starts on his morning errands: he milks a couple of ewes (not "ewww," as in yuck, but "ewe" as in female sheep).
- The family then gets together to chow down on breakfast, which consists of some cornmeal mush and goat's milk (all organic, of course).
- Today, the family's going to lead their herd—300 sheep and goats—to a new grazing area, so that the sheep can chow down too.
- The family begins packing up their stuff and loads their things onto a "sheep horse."
- No, it's not some weird animal that's a cross between a sheep and a horse; it's a horse that accompanies the family on their sheep herding expeditions.
- As the family follows the sheep, a little coyote grabs a kid (no—not human kid, a baby goat).
- Nez aims a slingshot he's carrying at the coyote. Young Auntie makes a big racket with a coffee can to scare it away. Three dogs run over and scare the coyote away.
- The coyote drops the kid, but he's injured. Still, the little guy manages to keep up with his mommy as the herd moves on.
- The Navajo don't like coyotes. Not only because they eat their livestock, but because in Navajo tradition it's believed that evil people come back as coyotes.
- The family covers about eleven miles that day with their herds, and they finally stop to camp under the shade of piñon grove.
- Chester has some fun practicing his sling-shooting skills as he waits for dinner. But then he's told off by Auntie, who doesn't want him to scare those scaredy-cat sheep.
- Chester thinks about his mother, trying to picture her. She died a couple of years before and Chester was too little to remember what she looked like.
- After his mom's death, Chester, his brothers, his sister and his dad went to live with their maternal grandmother.
- The whole family now lives on Grandmother's land in an area known as the Checkerboard, near the Navajo Reservation in the southwest U.S., where most of the Navajo people live.
- As they wait for dinner, Chester's brother Coolidge points out a porcupine in a tree.
- The two brothers manage to kill it by bashing it over the head with a tree limb.
- Auntie calls the boys to dinner. They don't get to eat the super-tasty porcupine meat because it will take all night to cook, so they eat some tortillas with goat cheese instead (which also sounds tasty).
- Auntie prepares a sage poultice for the injured kid and applies it to its wounded leg.
- Nez falls asleep to the smell of roasting porcupine.
The Great Stories: Mid to Late 1920s
- It's the winter, and Chester is sitting around the fire with his family, listening to Father and Grandmother tell stories.
- His dad is talking about the origins of the Diné people (another name for the Navajo people), and how way, way back in time the Holy People had provided four mountains to protect them.
- Then Chester's grandmother picks up the thread of the story. She talks about how at the dawn of creation, four Navajo words were spoken: light, earth, water and air. With these words the sun, the earth, the oceans, and the air appeared.
- Grandmother says that the first Diné entered into the world from three underworlds. Coyote, the trickster, helped First Man and First Woman to fling the stars into the heavens.
- But then monsters started showing up and going after the Diné.
- Then Changing Woman married the Sun. She had two twin sons with daddy Sun. Daddy Sun gave his boys lightening bolts as weapons against the monsters.
- The twins aimed their lightening bolts at the monsters and killed them. The monsters turned into stone.
- Chester's grandfather talks about the hard times that the Diné went through after the arrival of the Spanish and other European settlers in America. They popped up and shoved the Diné and other tribes into smaller territories.
- Now Grandmother tells the story of the Long Walk. It starts with the Diné's fight against the white settlers who were trying to steal their land.
- One jerk-faced white man, called Kit Carson, burned Navajo crops and killed Navajo livestock, and then told the Navajo to surrender and gather together at Fort Defiance in Arizona.
- Grandmother's mother (Chester's great-grandmother), who was alive at the time, was forced, along with other Navajo, to walk from Fort Defiance to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. That's three hundred and fifty miles on foot.
- Hundreds of Navajo died on the Long Walk. The few who made it to Fort Sumner were locked up in something like a concentration camp, along with members of the Apache Nation. There were too many people kept together, the soil was bad so no one could grow food, the water was bad, and lots of people got sick.
- Grandmother says how this terrible time in Navajo history is remembered as the Long Walk. Eventually, the Navajo were allowed to leave Fort Sumner, and some moved onto the Navajo Reservation, while others settled on land near the reservation. Chester's family was among those that settled near the reservation in the area known as the Checkerboard.
Shipped Off to Boarding School: Late 1920s
- Chester stands slashing at some bushes, thinking. He's got a lot on his eight-year-old brain: he and his younger sister Dora are about to be shipped off to boarding school.
- The government wants Navajo children to learn English, which means that Chester and his sis have to go to school. After the corn is harvested, they'd be sent off. But Chester's worried: he's used to being home with Grandma and the family, and school is part of the white man's world.
- The big day arrives in October. A local missionary drives Chester and Dora to a kindergarten in Tohatchi, New Mexico.
- It's this missionary who gives Chester his last name, "Nez," which is his father's name. Nez means "very long" or "very tall" in Navajo, because Chester's dad is a tall guy.
- When Chester and his sister arrive at the school, they're fed some milk and one cracker. Not much, we know. Nez misses the yummy food he ate at Grandmother's house—tortillas and mutton and corn cooked over a campfire.
- Over the next few days he and Dora are always hungry. They just don't get enough food.
- When Chester and Dora go home for a visit, they tell their older brother Coolidge how they're starving all the time at school.
- Coolidge tells them that they're not going back to school in Tohatchi; instead they'll go to his school in Fort Defiance.
- They hitch a ride with the same missionary again, this time on their way to the new school in Fort Defiance. They arrive at Fort Defiance around midnight, and they're scared.
- Chester fills us in on some history here: he tells us that Fort Defiance was built in the early 1850s by a Colonel Sumner, a Union commander in the Civil War. From the Fort, American soldiers quashed Navajo uprisings.
- It was here that Kit Carson had gathered the Navajo for the Long Walk to Fort Sumner. By the time Chester arrives there, the Fort's been turned into a government school for Navajo children.
- On the first day of school, Chester lines up with the other new boys. They have to get a haircut. A lot of the boys are crying, because in Navajo culture, hair and fingernails have to be disposed of properly. The Navajo believe that if hair and fingernails aren't hidden or burned, they can be used to jinx or curse their owner.
- But Chester has no choice: he's pushed into a chair and a barber shaves his head. Native American matrons (though they're non-Navajo) watch as the boys get their haircuts.
- The boys are then given navy-blue uniforms. Chester tries to help a boy who can't do up the buttons on the uniform. He makes the mistake of speaking in Navajo. Bad move. A terrifying matron tells him off.
- The new boys are given a tour of the school.
- At night, Chester and the other boys head to their dormitory. In the middle of the night Chester's neighbor in the next bed wakes up screaming.
- He's having bad dreams. Chester sees an owl perched on a lamppost outside the dorm—a bad omen in Navajo culture.
- Chester still can't get any sleep the next night. He sees spirits of dead warriors. He wishes that his big brother Coolidge was sleeping next to him, but his brother is in a different building because he's older.
- A few days later, Chester is smacked across the head because he addresses another boy using his Navajo name. All the boys are given English names, but Chester gets to keep the name "Nez" that the missionary has given him.
- Two scary matrons oversee Chester and the boys in his section of the school. They test the kids' knowledge of their new English names. When they get them wrong, they smack them across the head. That's just cruel.
- Another time he'd been caught again speaking Navajo, the matron had brushed his teeth with soap. Those matrons are awful.
- The kids in the dorm whisper in Navajo, talking about how mean the matrons are. Chester thinks about Grandmother's home, and how he's never beaten there.
- He remembers playing games at home, shearing sheep, and how Grandmother and Auntie weave beautiful rugs from wool in the winter.
- He misses the warm wool clothes that Grandmother and Aunties made for him from sheepskin. In the school, he's cold all the time.
Bullies and Religion: Late 1920s, Early 1930s
- It's the weekend, and Chester and the other boys are in their dorm. The scary matrons have been replaced by a couple of older boys who are babysitting the younger boys for the weekend.
- The two boys order Chester and the rest of the little kids to line up. They tell the little kids to run around.
- As they run, the older boys throw baseballs at them. Nope, the older boys aren't any better than the matrons.
- Chester tells us that even at breakfast the younger kids are bullied by the older kids, who steal their food.
- At lunchtime later that day, Chester lines up to enter the cafeteria. An older boy, another bully, tells him that today they'll be served meat.
- Chester had better give his lunch to the boy. Or else.
- Luckily, Coolidge is around and yells at the bully. Chester gets to eat all of his mutton and bread.
- After lunch, the boys are called to afternoon class. The teacher asks a "yes" or "no" question and picks on Chester to answer. Chester says, "Yes."
- Uh-oh. It's the wrong answer. Chester is called up to the front of the class and the teacher whacks him with a ruler.
- One Saturday afternoon, Chester and some of his buddies head to the trading post.
- They buy marbles with a bit of money they make breaking up coal for government workers who have offices in the school building.
- At the beginning of each school year, Chester's father drives him, his sister Dora and a bunch of other school kids in a horse-drawn wagon to Gallup, New Mexico. There, a school truck comes to pick them up and takes them the rest of the way to Fort Defiance. Gallup is thirteen or fourteen miles from Chester's grandmother's home in the Checkerboard. Each year, Chester and the kids dread heading back to school in Fort Defiance.
- One winter, a friend of Chester's, Robert Walley, decides to run away from school with a couple of other kids.
- Chester misses Robert after he makes his escape, especially on weekends. One weekend, Chester goes alone to the trading post and pays to watch a movie.
- It's yet another movie about cowboys defeating Native Americans. Great.
- One day, Chester is sitting at lunch in the school cafeteria. A buzz goes up when Robert Walley, Chester's friend who'd run away, is marched in with the other runaways: they've been caught and returned to the school.
- The escapees are dressed as girls. Everyone stares at the boys dressed as girls in the cafeteria. Chester doesn't tell us why the escaped kids are dressed as girls: is it a disguise that they'd put on to avoid being caught? Or is it punishment for escaping? (Those matrons do have some twisted ways of punishing boys at the school).
- One day, Chester and his school friends decide to play hockey with tree sticks. A boy runs up to tell them that their football pants have arrived. Everyone runs to the locker room to get a look at the new pants.
- There isn't enough money for full uniforms, but the boys get pants, helmets, and some manage to get some protective pads, too. Football is their favorite game, ever.
- At church one day, Chester and another boy, Robert Adams, change into altar-boy vestments. It's Chester's fourth year as an altar boy.
- The government school that Chester attends wants the boys to be Catholic. The boys are made to go to church twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays.
Building Grandmother's Hogan: Early 1930s
- This chapter opens with young Chester (not so young anymore) hanging out with his dad and uncle on one of his school holidays. They're sawing down a huge piñon tree in preparation for building a "hogan," a traditional Navajo dwelling, for Grandmother.
- Chester and his father, grandfather, and uncle work for several days building the hogan.
- When the hogan is finished, Grandmother and Grandfather send for a medicine man, who comes to bless the new home.
- Once the medicine man completes his blessing, life can begin in the new home. But Grandmother loves her new home so much, that she does a ritual of blessing to protect the new home each morning.
- One day, Chester comes home to the yummy smell of Grandma's cooking.
- Chester helps Grandmother prepare for dinner by "setting the table," spreading flour sacks on the floor.
- Everyone sits around the flour sacks, where the food is placed, and chows down on the food. Chester asks Grandmother to tell them a story, and Grandma tells them about her childhood.
- As he listens, Chester begins dozing off. He wishes he could stay home for the winter.
- He remembers how when he was very little he and his brothers sometimes stripped naked in the snow and his dad rolled them in a snow bank (that sounds freezing). This was a way of toughening the children against the winter cold.
- Chester wakes up from a dream about his family and neighbors getting together for a big feast in the autumn.
- But he realizes that by the autumn he will be back in school, and he'll miss all the feasting and storytelling. Does he have to go back to that horrible school? He hates it. He's already dreading going back.
Sweat Lodge: Early 1930s
- Chester is bathing in an arroyo (a gully with running water) on Grandmother's land. He's still on holiday from school.
- It's September, and Chester is glad to be taking a bath in the cool water. As he's enjoying the water he thinks about the sweat bath cleansing he's going to take part in later with Grandfather, Uncle, Father, and Coolidge.
- Later that day, Chester and the other men in the family (yup, only men are allowed in the sweat bath) walk over to the sweat bath hut. The boys pile hot rocks inside the lodge.
- Once inside, the older men sing traditional Navajo songs and Chester and his brother join in. It's gettin' hot in here.
- After an hour, they all leave and say an exit prayer. Chester feels good.
- He's not only physically cleansed, but also spiritually cleansed after the prayers and song. Ahhh….
The Great Livestock Massacre: Mid-1930s
- The chapter opens with Chester at home on his summer break in Chichiltah. He's mending a fence for the sheep corral. He's thirteen or fourteen by this point.
- Suddenly, as he's working, he hears the rumble of heavy equipment. Men from the Bureau of Indian Affairs arrive with a bulldozer. They dig a huge trench through Grandmother's land and on the land of their neighbors.
- The BIA men tell Grandfather and Grandmother to herd about 700 of their 1,000 sheep and goats into the trench. What are these Bureau of Indian Affairs guys up to? It's not looking good.
- Once the animals are rounded up into the trench, the BIA men (gasp!) set fire to them.
- The poor sheep and goats make horrible noises and bleat and scream as they're burned alive. Couldn't those BIA men have done this in a more humane way? We know PETA would be seriously displeased.
- The whole family is devastated by the killing of their livestock.
- Poor Chester's in tears that night, because he knows that this is a huge blow to the family. Livestock is wealth among the Navajo, and they've just lost, oh, 70% of theirs.
- As it turns out, it's not just Chester's family that's been so badly affected.
- Every Navajo family in the area with more than 100 animals had been forced to "reduce" their flocks.
- It takes time for Chester's family to figure out why the government's ordered this "reduction." At the time of the Livestock Massacre, the country is in the middle of the Great Depression, and the government is worried about Navajo herds overgrazing and using up good land.
- So the government decided to just kill off most of the Navajos' animals. In return, the government promises that the Navajo will be granted a land expansion.
- But once the livestock reduction takes place, the Navajos aren't granted the promised land expansion.
- Chester tells us that some historians think the livestock reduction program was aimed at making Navajos more powerless and more dependent on the government.
- The extermination program went on for years. The Navajo sheep population is reduced from 1.6 million in 1932 to 400,000 in 1944. That is a lot of dead sheep.
- Chester tells us that the Livestock Massacre tears apart the Navajo community.
- Everyone is much poorer as a result of losing their herds, and so neighbors aren't as willing to cooperate with one another and help each other out after the massacre—they can't afford to.
- What's more, the massacre also undermines the strong Navajo work ethic.
- What's the point of working hard, growing herds and wealth, when it can all be taken away in the blink of an eye? They feel powerless.
- According to Chester, the Livestock Massacre is the second big tragedy in Navajo history, after the Long Walk.
- For the rest of the summer, and for the summers after that, Chester continues to help with herding the few remaining animals on Grandmother's land.
- But at the end of each summer he dreads going back to school.
- Chester's sister gets sick with tuberculosis and stops going to school. She stays behind in Chichiltah instead.
- Coolidge finishes school. With his sister and brother gone, poor Chester is left to make the trek back to Fort Defiance all alone at the end of each summer.
- He still hates school, but he's a responsible kid, and he wants to make his family proud.
Marine Recruit: Late 1930s, Early 1940s
- Chester is on a truck on his way back to Chichiltah. He's finally finished eighth grade, the last grade in the school at Fort Defiance. Yay!
- But he still has four more years of high school to go. Oh. That sucks.
- He's enrolled in a junior high school in Gallup, New Mexico. This school is way different from his school in Fort Defiance.
- Even though classes are also in English here, students speak Navajo openly in the hallways. Chester can't believe his ears. And there are no horrible matrons and bullies in this new school. Phew. It's much better than the school in Fort Defiance.
- Partway through tenth grade, the government decides that Chester has to move to a new boarding school in Tuba City, Arizona.
- (We guess because the Gallup school is just too much fun. Does the government have it in for Chester or something?)
- Chester doesn't like the Tuba City school as much as the Gallup school, but hey, it's still better than the horrible school in Fort Defiance.
- At school in Tuba City, students begin hearing news broadcasts about war (that's World War II, people) breaking out in Europe.
- In the late spring of 1940, the Navajo Tribal Council, the highest Navajo governing council, passes a resolution of allegiance to the U.S.
- Just in case the American government gets drawn into the war, the Navajo is on its side. Very kind of the Navajo, considering the American government has messed them up again and again (remember the Great Livestock Massacre?).
- On December 7th, 1941, news of the Japanese bombing of an American base in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii reaches the Tuba City School. Whoa. This is serious business now. War's come to the American homeland.
- Chester gives us a little historical lesson on U.S.-Japanese relations here. At one point in time, the Japanese and the Americans were friends.
- The Japanese had sided with the allies—the U.S. and Britain—during World War I.
- But in 1937, the Japanese invaded China. In reaction, the U.S. nationalizes all Japanese assets in the U.S. in 1941.
- In retaliation, Japan signs a pact with Germany and Italy—the bad-guy Fascists in the war in Europe—in September of 1941. And the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.
- The school principal calls the students together to explain what's happened in Pearl Harbor. Chester discusses the events with his friends, including Roy Begay, another student at the school.
- The U.S. is now officially at war. Chester and his friends decide that they will join the military if they're asked, and they'll put their awesome Navajo-warrior-butt-kicking skills to good use.
- The Navajo are famous warriors, after all.
April to June 1942
- Marine recruits arrive in April 1942 at the Tuba City school looking for fluent English and Navajo speakers.
- By this point in 1942 the Japanese have conquered Hong Kong, Guam, Wake Island, and have attacked the Australian port city of Darwin. Those Japanese are on a serious rampage. Will Chester and his buddy Roy Begay help stop them?
- You bet. Chester and Roy decide to join up with the Marines. They go with Marine recruiters to Fort Defiance, where they find 200 other young Navajo.
- Chester is interviewed in English by Marine recruiters. Only thirty men out of the hundreds that are there are going to be selected to join the Marines.
- Both Chester and his friend Roy make the cut. Hurrah!
- One of the thirty men picked drops out, which leaves twenty-nine men, "the original twenty-nine," which includes Chester and Roy.
- Wait—which "original twenty-nine?" The original twenty-nine code talkers!
- On May 4, 1942, the new recruits head to Fort Wingate, New Mexico, where they're sworn in as U.S. Marines.
- Then they all head to the Marine Recruit Depot, just outside of San Diego, California.
- The new Marines walk around San Diego and take in the sights. It's their first time in such a big city.
- Chester and the new Navajo Marines don't yet know that they're part of a secret mission. That's coming later.
- But first, Chester gives us a little background on this secret mission. Get ready for some serious info.
- This secret mission is the brainchild of Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary couple who lived on a Navajo reservation.
- Johnston knew that Navajo is a very complex language, and that it's unwritten. He realized that it would make a great basis for a secret military code.
- Johnston convinces a senior communications officer in the Marines to test out the potential of a military code based on Navajo.
- Another top-ranking officer would observe the trial and rule on the potential of the Navajo code.
- Johnston finds four Navajo men fluent in English and Navajo and gives them the task of coming up with Navajo words for various military terms.
- Then the Navajo men and the Marine communications men have to transmit military messages using the new vocabulary.
- During this trial, the same messages are transmitted using the "Shackle" code—the standard military code used to transmit messages, which involves a long process of encoding and decoding messages written in English.
- The military messages take an hour to be sent and received using standard Shackle code.
- But the same messages are transmitted in forty seconds using the vocabulary that the four Navajo men have come up with. Wow. That's quite a difference.
- Johnston's trial convinces Marine brass to give the Navajo code a serious go. Thirty (now twenty-nine) Navajo Marines are recruited—among them our hero Chester—to take part in the secret mission of developing the code.
- Up until this point in the war, the Japanese have cracked every single military code that the Americans have come up with.
- The Marines are desperate for something that the Japanese can't crack.
- But before the Navajo Marines learn about their secret mission, they have to complete Marine basic training: a.k.a. boot camp.
- Chester is jolted from sleep at 5 a.m. It's the wake-up call for the new recruits' basic training.
- The Marines run along the beach carrying pails of sand and water.
- They then spend half an hour on an obstacle course, and spend the rest of the morning doing exercises.
- After lunch, the drill sergeant tells them that they all have to learn to swim. Luckily, Chester knows how to swim—he'd taught himself as a young boy by swimming in the family's reservoir—but many of his buddies don't.
- A few days into training, an instructor (a corporal), lines up the Navajo recruits and punches them each in the gut, telling them he's checking if they're getting tough.
- When the corporal reaches Carl Gorman, one of the Navajo recruits, Gorman hits him back. The corporal and Carl put on boxing gloves and duke it out. Chester and the other Marines root for their friend Carl.
- Even though boot camp is a challenge (how can it not be? it's boot camp), Chester and his buddies work hard at learning everything.
- They do a good job, and the Marine Corps newspaper in San Diego, the Chevron, runs an article about their platoon, Navajo Platoon 382.
- Platoon 382 impresses their instructors at the rifle range, where they earn one of the highest scores on marksmanship.
- They also have to do hand-to-hand combat training with bayonets (yikes!). They get bruised up during the training but hey—it's all in a day's work.
- They also attend communications school and learn various codes, including Morse and semaphore (which uses flags).
- They learn to fix radios and take them apart. Though they don't know it at the time, but radios are going to be super important when they get to their secret code work later.
- After completing seven weeks of basic training, Platoon 382 stands for final inspection on June 27, 1942. They're ready to rock 'n roll.
- They're praised by the commanding officer of the base. The Marine Corps Chevron runs another article about them.
Unbreakable Code: July to September 1942
- Platoon 382 can't wait to go on their ten-day leave after finishing boot camp.
- But they're told by an officer they can't go home just yet. They still have a secret mission to get through.
- Chester writes a letter home to his family telling them he's joined up with the Marines. Wait—is this the first that his fam is hearing about this?
- The Navajo Marines are sent to Camp Elliott near San Diego. There, a Marine officer tells them that their task is to devise a military code using the Navajo language.
- The officer puts them in a room together and tells them that they need to come up with a Navajo word for each letter of the English alphabet.
- Left to work alone in the room, the Marines come up with English words—an animal, a plant, or an object—for each letter. Then they translate the English word to Navajo.
- The letter "A," for example, becomes "Red Ant" in English. They then translate that word to Navajo: wol-la-chee. They do the same for each of the letters of the alphabet.
- By the end of day one, the Marines have made good progress. They work well as a team.
- After all, Navajo culture is built around working together; the Navajo have to cooperate with each other to herd their livestock.
- When they're not working on the code, Chester and his buddies explore San Diego and go out drinking.
- They need to blow off some steam after a hard day of work.
- It takes the Marines five days to come up with Navajo word equivalents for the full English alphabet.
- In battle, the Navajo code words will never be written down: it's too dangerous. If they're written down the Japanese might get their hands on the code, and that would be a disaster for the Americans.
- So Chester and his Marine buddies have to learn everything they come up with by heart.
- The Marines also have to come up with Navajo words for certain military terms that are used a lot in battle.
- Three new Navajo Marines join the group to help with the military terms.
- Given that there are no Navajo equivalents to the English military terms, the Marines have to get creative with their translations.
- For example, for the word "fighter plane," they use the Navajo word for "hummingbird," since a fighter plane and a hummingbird kind of look alike, don't they? They both fly, at least.
- Once the Marines finish the development phase of the code, they're set to the task of testing the code in the real world on radios.
- At one point, a military officer who doesn't know about the Navajo Marines' secret mission hears the code on the radio.
- Troops along the California coast are ordered to go into "condition black"—which means that the military's weapons are at the ready.
- The officer who'd heard the code had thought that the Japanese had invaded the U.S. mainland at San Diego.
- One of the colonels involved in the Navajo mission has to explain that this is a special Navajo code the Marines are developing. Talk about a close call.
- The top Marine brass are divided about the effectiveness of the new code—which is much faster and more efficient than the conventional Shackle code.
- Some of the high-ranking officers think that the Navajo recruits are cheating—how could their code be so efficient? It seems too good to be true.
- The Navajo Marines are ordered to test the code under more rigorous conditions. The code, again, works.
- Clearly, these Navajo Marines aren't cheating: they've just come up with the best military code ever. So even the doubters in the Marine brass have to admit that the code is working.
- Even expert code breakers from the U.S. military can't break the code; it's that good. They try for weeks, but can't do it. After this, the Marine brass are convinced that the Navajos have done a pretty amazing job.
- After thirteen weeks, in September 1942, the Marines graduate as Navajo code talkers, Marine Corps MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) number 642 and are each promoted to Private First Class.
- The Marines want a leave (hey, they've earned it: they've been working their butts off for weeks now).
- Again, officers tell them that they can't get a break. They need to head straight to the Pacific, where the Americans are losing the war to the Japanese.
- The Marines prepare to board ships headed to the French islands of New Caledonia.
New Caledonia: October to Early November 1942
- Chester is on a ship: the USS Lurline. He's standing with a couple of his Navajo Marine buddies looking out at the water.
- The next day they dock in Hawaii, but only officers are granted shore leave and Navajo Marines and everyone else have to stay on board the ship. A lot of the Marines are really seasick—they've never been on a ship before and they have a long journey ahead of them.
- In Hawaii, a new contingent of Marine recruits boards.
- The ship leaves Hawaii, and after about a week, Chester and the other Marines start to get over their seasickness.
- Thank goodness for that; they've barely been able to hold anything down since boarding the ship.
- The ten code talkers on the ship constantly practice their code, but they keep it secret from the other Marines, because they've been instructed by their superiors not to tell a soul.
- Finally, the Marines arrive at Grand Terre in New Caledonia. On shore, the ten code talkers on Chester's ship reunite with the other code talkers who arrive on different vessels. Thirty of the thirty-two men who were involved with developing the Navajo code have been sent to war in the fall and winter of 1942.
- The Marines do more combat training on Grand Terre. They practice abandoning ship and also do night landing and hand-to-hand combat exercises.
- At night, Chester and his partner Roy sleep in a foxhole.
- By October 1942, Chester and his buddies feel ready to go. The code is engraved in their brains. Thirteen of the code talkers, including Chester and Roy, receive orders: they'll be joining members of the 1st Marine Division, which has already been deployed to re-capture Guadalcanal, in the battle for the island.
- Can we get a drum roll here? It's about to begin.
The Secret Code Passes Muster: Early November to December 1942: Guadalcanal
- This chapter takes us right back to the beginning of the book. Remember, in the first chapter, Chester describes his landing on Guadalcanal in the heat of battle, as artillery shells and bullets fly all around.
- Here, Chester takes us back to that scene. He and Roy have made it to the beach on Guadalcanal alive (hooray!). They've dug a foxhole and now they're both crammed in there, wet and scared.
- Roy and Chester can't sleep that night. Who can sleep with "Midnight Charlies" (Japanese bombers) flying overhead and Banzai (Japanese suicide-attackers) lurking somewhere in the darkness?
- The next morning, Chester completes a traditional Navajo morning blessing with his corn pollen. He keeps a pouch of it in his uniform pocket. Chester needs all the protection and blessing he can get; now he's officially in the middle of the war.
- Lieutenant Hunt, Chester and Roy's superior, isn't happy about having to switch code tactics in the middle of battle.
- To test the new code, the standard communications men and the new Navajo code talkers are given the same message.
- It takes four hours for the message to be delivered using the "Shackle" code. It takes the Navajo Marines two and half minutes to deliver the message in Navajo code.
- The American Marines who overhear the Navajo code over the radio are alarmed, thinking that the Japanese have broken into U.S. radio frequencies. They jam the sounds.
- This is the second big mix-up that happens with the Navajo code (remember when the military along the U.S. west coast went into "condition black" because of the code?)
- So that this mix-up doesn't happen again, the code talkers tag their messages with the words "New Mexico" or "Arizona," followed by the time and date, spoken in Navajo.
- Lieutenant Hunt is convinced that the Navajo code works. Soon after, runners begin arriving with messages for the Navajo Marines to deliver.
- Runners are dudes who perform the dangerous work of scouting ahead of U.S. lines into enemy territory in order to report on locations of Japanese troops and armaments.
- A runner arrives with a first message for Chester: "Enemy machine-gun nest on your right flank. Destroy." Roy begins cranking the radio, and Chester delivers the message in Navajo code. Boom! Just like that, the Japanese machine-gun nest is destroyed by the Americans. Chester and Roy can't believe their eyes: their code is working!
- After sending the message, Chester and Roy have to crawl to a new position. They can't stay in the same place after delivering a message because the Japanese can track their radio positions and, well, drop a bomb on them. Not cool.
- Roy and Chester switch places: it's Chester's turn to crank the radio and Roy's turn to deliver the messages.
- Bullets are whizzing buy and there's shelling everywhere. That first day, they deliver messages through the heat of battle for twenty-four hours non-stop.
- Finally, after a really long, and really hard first day, they can get some sleep.
- Yeah, it's in a foxhole, but after twenty-four hours running around, delivering messages and trying not to get killed, a foxhole doesn't seem so bad.
- The next day they wake up early, hungry, and crawl to the mess hall. After breakfast, they get back to transmitting messages.
- The messages they send to the U.S. ships offshore include calls for ammunition, food, medical supplies, as well as the locations of enemy troops and U.S. artillerymen. There are four code talkers on the ship and six on land, transmitting to each other.
- A message arrives for Chester to deliver: it's the coordinates of forward U.S. troop locations on the island.
- The pilots flying U.S. bombers need these coordinates, so they don't accidentally bomb their own American buddies. That would be bad.
- That night, as Chester, Roy and the other Marines are in their foxholes, a Japanese suicide-attacker (a Banzai) jumps out of nowhere.
- One of the Marines shoots him dead as he runs toward them. Phew! That was close.
- Chester manages to get a few hours of sleep that night. When he wakes up, he finds Roy and a couple of other code talkers eating military rations.
- Chester's feet are covered in blisters from the soaking wet foxhole. He's miserable. He thinks of home, and the beautiful piñon and oak trees on Grandmother's land on the Checkerboard.
- A lot of the Japanese troops are sheltering in Mount Austen, a mountain on the island, which also give them an advantage because they can look out on and attack the Americans on shore from there.
- If the Marines are going to take the island, they need to take Mount Austen first.
We Must Take Mount Austen: December 1942 to February 1943: Guadalcanal
- Nez and his buddies are exhausted on the front. They've been battling the Japanese for weeks now, and some of the guys are going loony because the stress is getting to them.
- In December of 1942, the Marines of the 1st Division receive word that the 2nd Marine Division is on the way to Guadalcanal.
- The 1st Marine Division will be given a break—they'll get to go on R&R—rest and relaxation time in Australia. Yay! Nez and his Navajo buddies can't wait. They haven't had a break since boot camp.
- But hang on. Right before the 1st Division Marines are due to leave for R&R, the Navajos are told they can't go and bum on a beach in Australia, after all.
- Their mission is too critical. The Japanese haven't managed to crack the Navajo code, and the Marines need to keep using it when the new division arrives.
- Chester and the Navajo Marines watch their buddies of the 1st Division board ships for Australia. We can imagine how Chester and the other Navajo Marines left behind on Guadalcanal feel at this point. They probably want to cry.
- They have to stay behind to be pelted by Japanese bullets while their friends sip beers on a beach in Australia. Not fair.
- General Alexander Patch, the head of the 2nd Marine Division, arrives on Guadalcanal and orders an infantry division from the army to attack Gifu Ridge, a mountainous area southwest of Mount Austen.
- But the Americans are forced back down by the Japanese hiding out in the Ridge.
- The code talkers have a big role to play in this assault on Gifu Ridge. Each shot by the Americans is positioned using information transmitted by the code talkers.
- During a lull in the fighting, Chester chills in a foxhole with his buddy Roy. The two remember the grass, and the sheep, and the beautiful landscape of Navajo land back in the southwest.
- On January 4th, 1943, more American troops arrive to help out with the capture of the island from the Japanese.
- New code talker recruits also arrive, and Chester and Roy are each assigned a code talker rookie. Chester's new code talking partner is Francis Tsinajnnie.
- The 2nd Marine Division is assigned to take Galloping Horse ridge to the west of Mt. Austen. Gifu Ridge has finally been taken by the Americans, and the Japanese holed up in Mt. Austen have been cut off.
- Realizing that they're losing, the Japanese begin to evacuate their troops from the island.
- On February 9, 1943, the general in charge of the American troops officially reports that the island of Guadalcanal has been secured by the Americans. Hurrah!
March 1943 through October 1943: Guadalcanal
- Chester and his new partner Francis and Roy Begay and his new partner Roy Notah are working together as a team on the island.
- Soon, word arrives that the 2nd Marine Division is due for some R&R leave.
- Does that mean that our hard working, code talking Navajo Marines are finally going to get a break, too? After all, they were denied the first time around.
- Think again. The code talkers are told, once again, that they can't leave for R&R because they're needed on the island: the 3rd Marine division is arriving on Guadalcanal and would be training for an attack on the island of Bougainville.
- The code talkers would be needed for the invasion of Bougainville.
- Units of the 3rd Marine Division begin arriving in June of 1943. Now that the Japanese have left Guadalcanal, the Marines have time for things like fortifying their foxholes, watching films, and bathing.
- Oh wow, we'd forgotten about bathing. Those Marine's feet must smell like blue cheese.
- A couple of weeks after Guadalcanal has been secured, Melanesians, natives of the island of Guadalcanal, start coming out of their hiding places—some of them injured. The Marines help them out with treatment.
November 1943 to May 1944: Bougainville
- It's November 3, 1943, and Chester and Roy are on a Higgins boat approaching the shore of Bougainville, another island in the Pacific.
- The day before, the Japanese Navy had tried to intercept the American troops and stop them from landing on the island.
- On Bougainville, there are Japanese airfields on the northern tip of the island and on the southern tip. The airfields are guarded heavily by the Japanese.
- The Americans have bombarded the northern and southern airfields on the island in order to trick the Japanese. The American troops (including Chester's code talking team) are landing on the western coast of the island, at Cape Torokina.
- Chester and Francis land at Cape Torokina and make it to the tree line, about 250 yards away from the beach.
- That evening, they dig a foxhole in the soggy soil and hunker down. There just ain't no getting away from those foxholes, is there?
- That night, they hear a shot. The next morning they discover that one of the code talkers, Harry Tsosie, has been shot dead by an American corpsman, who mistook him for a Japanese soldier when Harry crawled out of his foxhole in the middle of the night to pee.
- Poor Harry! This is the first death among the code talkers.
- A few nights later, Chester and Francis have trouble sending an important message: for some reason, they can't deliver the message by radio.
- So they have to act as runners, leaving their foxhole and venturing out into enemy territory. They only have to go four or five hundred yards, but those yards feel like miles. There are mortars and gunfire everywhere.
- The Americans manage to hold the beach at Cape Torokina, but the Japanese are up in the ridges and mountains surrounding it, and they have an advantage from their place up on "Hellzappopin," the nickname the Marines give to the ridge overlooking Cape Torokina.
- It's dangerous. One morning, as Francis, Chester and a few others are running along the beach, a bullet whizzes right by Chester's head. Yikes! It's really a close call this time.
- On Christmas Day in 1943, the Marines scale Hellzapoppin and take it from the Japanese.
- It's quiet after the Americans take the ridge, but not for long.
- One morning, as Chester and Francis are loading up their trays with breakfast, Japanese Zeros (military planes) swarm in. Francis and Chester run for cover in their foxhole as bombs explode all around them.
- The Japanese commander Hyakutake and his men arrive on Bougainville in March 1944.
- The Japanese attack the beach at Cape Torokina, and for seventeen days the battle rages. The code talkers don't get a break: they're busy manning their radios.
- The Americans win the battle for the shore, and by April 1944 they secure the island. 1,000 American troops have died. That's a lot—but not as much as the 7,000 Japanese soldiers who've died too.
- One day, while they're eating, a fellow Marine asks Chester what his home back on the Checkerboard is like. Chester tells him about how beautiful it is, and he grows nostalgic.
- A few days after Bougainville is secured, a message comes through to the code talkers that the Japanese are returning to the island by ship. Uh-oh.
- A "condition black" is issued by the American command. Weapons are at the ready. Francis and Chester wait in their foxhole.
- Soon after another message arrives to Chester: the American navy has beaten off the Japanese ships attempting to re-invade Bougainville.
- Yay! They're in condition yellow now, "all clear."
Onward to Guam: June to July 1944: Training, Guadalcanal
- Nez and his buddies are back on the island of Guadalcanal. It's familiar, of course, but quiet.
- The island is now a jungle training base for the American troops. American generals are together on the island, strategizing for the war.
- The code talkers are informed of the generals' plans, and they forward strategic information to military leaders who aren't at the meetings on the island.
- Even though the Americans are making progress, the bulk of the Pacific islands are still under Japanese control.
- The troops on Guadalcanal, including Chester and his buddies, prepare for an assault on Guam, another Pacific island that's part of the Mariana Islands.
- The Americans want to take the island as a stepping-stone for an attack on Japan. This is part of "Operation Forager," which is designed to capture a number of the Mariana Islands from the Japanese, including Saipan, Tinian, and Guam.
July to August 1944: Guam
- Chester gives us a bit of a history lesson here: he tells us that Guam had been a territory of the U.S. from 1900 to 1941, when it was captured by the Japanese.
- The Americans, of course, want it back. And Chester's going to take part in the battle.
- On July 21, 1944, the Marines and infantry invade Guam. The 3rd Marine Division (which Nez and his buddies are attached to now), land north of Apra Harbor, a harbor on Guam's western coast.
- The goal is to capture the Japanese naval yard there. Another set of troops lands south of the harbor with the aim of capturing the Orote Peninsula with its airfield.
- Francis and Chester wade to the island's shore in the middle of flying bullets. Shrapnel hits Chester's left foot, but Chester and Francis manage to make it to the beach.
- Luckily, the shrapnel wound isn't so bad (and hey, a little war scar isn't such a bad memento, is it?)
- Before dawn on the sixth day, Chester and Francis receive a message about a Banzai (Japanese suicide) attack on U.S. positions.
- The Americans counter-attack, and Chester and Francis are busy delivering messages all night.
- By morning, 3,500 Japanese troops lay dead. Thanks to the Navajo code, the American troops had been warned just in time about the Banzai attack, and they manage to hold the beach.
- One morning, Nez and his squad are huddled in a bomb crater with their commanding lieutenant, a guy from New York.
- The squad doesn't like the lieutenant: he's mean and dangerous. While running back and forth on the crater's lip, he gets shot in the butt (We know that must hurt).
- The lieutenant is shipped out for treatment, and he's replaced by a much nicer guy from Philadelphia, who treats his squad much better.
- The Marines assault Sugar Ridge—an area sheltering Japanese troops on Guam—and capture it on July 31, 1944.
- The Marines bombard Agana, Guam's largest city. But when they move into the city they realize it's been abandoned by the Japanese.
- On August 7, 1944, news arrives that the Japanese have abandoned their fortifications on Tumon Bay, just northeast of Agana Bay. The Marines move in and secure Tiyan Airfield.
- During the assault, a unit of code talkers (not Chester's, thankfully) is attacked.
- One of the code talkers—Charlie Begay—has his throat sliced. He must be superman, or superhuman or something, because he survives. He's taken to hospital on board a military ship.
- After beating back the Japanese, a few code talkers—Chester among them—crawl into an empty Japanese bunker. It's creepy in there, and smelly.
- Only three weeks after the Marines land on Guam, on August 10, 1944, the Japanese are beaten on the island.
- The Navajo Marines have been doing such a good job with the code that a Signal Corps command officer praises their work.
- One day, after Guam is taken, Chester heads over to look at some of the Japanese prisoners who have been captured. He and a boy—a young Japanese soldier—stare at each other across the prison bars. It's an eerie moment: Chester is getting a direct look at the enemy.
- Now that Guam's been taken by the Americans, the code talkers can relax a little.
- One day, they make fry bread, a traditional Navajo bread. Hey, if they can't go chill on a beach in Australia, the least they can do is enjoy a little bit of fry bread.
- Finally, the Navajo Marines leave Guam to head back to Guadalcanal. This time they're leaving via transport plane.
- It's the first time that Chester (or any of the code talkers), has been on a plane. On the plane, a general commends the code talkers for their work.
September 1944: Peleliu
- Chester and the other Navajo Marines are on a transport ship. Again. Chester is worrying about the next battle. He's on his fourth campaign, and he hasn't had a proper break yet. Still no R&R.
- How long can he keep doing this? It's not like he's an Energizer bunny. He's human, after all.
- The Marines are on their way to land on the island of Peleliu, and Marine command has decided that the Navajo code—which has still not been broken by the Japanese—will be the only means of communication during the landing on the island.
- The 1st Marine Division, not Chester's 3rd, has been assigned the attack on the island, but because they don't have enough code talkers, Chester and Francis, along with Roy Begay and his partner, have been asked to go along with the 1st Marine Division to take part in the assault.
- Peleliu is an island in the Palau chain in the Pacific. More than 30,000 Japanese troops are stationed all over the Palau Islands, waiting for the Americans.
- On Peleliu, the Japanese have constructed a network of tunnels and fortified caves, where they can hide from the Americans.
- The Americans don't quite have enough troops to take the island, but Field Commander General William H. Rupertus has decided to go ahead with the assault anyway.
- When the first wave of Marines lands on Peleliu's southern tip on September 15, 1944, the Japanese go all out: they attack ferociously.
- Francis and Chester are dropped off onto the volcanic coral reef that surrounds the island, since their Higgins boat can't reach the beach.
- Bullets and artillery shells are flying everywhere. The Americans are battered badly by the Japanese as they attempt to land.
- Chester and Francis barely make it to the beach. A runner dives down and hands them a message.
- They send it over the radio, and then run from their spot so that the Japanese don't pinpoint their radio location.
- The Japanese continue attacking the landing Americans, but the American troops manage to hold them off. Finally—the next morning—the Japanese retreat. The Americans have managed to chase them away from the airfield near the beach.
- Even though the Americans have cleared the Japanese from the airfield, they can't make use of it because they'd be exposed to the Japanese hiding out in the their fortifications in the mountain overlooking the beach and the airfield.
- Still, the Americans have to cross the airfield to get to the Japanese. Chester and Francis are among them.
- As they run across the airfield, they watch some of their buddies go down as they get shot, killed, or mutilated by Japanese fire.
- U.S. troops manage to hold onto the beach and the airfield through the second day of fighting, but they can't get supplies because Japanese artillery is keeping the Higgins boats carrying the supplies from landing.
September 1944: Angaur
- Chester, Francis, Roy Begay and Roy Notah are ordered by a lieutenant to head over to the island of Angaur, to help out a division of the Army stationed there.
- The Army, unlike the Marines, doesn't have any Navajo code talkers. And now the Army needs the help of the Navajo Marines in order to transmit plans and strategies during their attack on Angaur.
- The four Marines head over to the island in a pontoon plane (a plane that lands on water).
- On their first night on Angaur, the Marines and the Army guys listen to the voice of Tokyo Rose coming out of Japanese loudspeakers.
- That's the name the Army soldiers give to the women who speak every night, in perfect English, to try and demoralize the American troops, telling them that they'll die alone in battle, and that their families will forget them. Sheesh, those Japanese clearly know how to do psychological warfare.
- The next evening on Angaur, Francis and Chester are stopped by two U.S. soldiers as they're returning from an assignment. The soldiers accuse them of being "Japs," and point their guns at them.
- Chester and Francis try to explain that they're Marines, but the soldiers don't believe them. It's hard enough having to worry about Japanese soldiers, but now Chester and his Navajo buddies have to worry about American soldiers?
- Chester convinces one of the soldiers to get a hold of someone from the communications center to prove their identity. A communications officer arrives and tells off the soldiers for capturing their own Marines.
- On September 20, 1944, a few days after the code talkers arrive on Angaur, the Army captures the island from the Japanese.
- The Navajo code talkers are sent back to Peleliu, where the battle is still raging.
September to late November 1944: Back to Peleliu
- Back in Peleliu, the Americans try to take over the Japanese positions in Umurbrogol Mountain, but the Japanese stop them. The Marines nickname the mountain "Bloody Nose Ridge."
- On September 23, a regiment of the Army arrives to help the Marines, who are clearly undermanned and aren't making much headway against the Japanese.
- With the help of the Army, the Marines capture northern Peleliu on September 30, 1944.
- In mid-October, General Roy Geiger declares that Peleliu is secure. But the island isn't secure yet. The Americans have captured some parts of the island, but there are a lot of Japanese still fighting from the mountains.
- Nez wakes up in bomb crater. He's confused about when he'd arrived back on Peleliu from Angaur.
- In the mess tent one morning, Chester's name is called by the mail sergeant. He has a letter from home. Yes!
- But a lot of the lines have been blacked out, because the military censors letters coming and going to the soldiers. Chester has to destroy the letter after reading it, as Marine command doesn't want the Japanese to get their hands on any of the letters.
- The Marines, with the help of the Army, attack Umurbrogol Mountain again, and they eventually take out the Japanese there.
- Three days before the Americans officially defeat the Japanese on the island, Colonel Nakagawa—commander of the Japanese troops—shoots himself dead. Instead of surrendering or being caught, many of the Japanese officers prefer to kill themselves.
- Finally, the Americans have full control over the island.
- Some of the code talkers have been wounded on Peleliu, which Chester tells us was the toughest battle of the Pacific.
- One code talker, Tommy Singer, dies while making his landing on the island. Sob.
- Uh-oh. The Japanese somehow learn that the unbreakable code used by the Americans has something to do with the Navajo language.
- A Navajo soldier—who is not a code talker—is captured by the Japanese and tortured. The Japanese want him to reveal the code.
- The poor guy has no clue what they're talking about. Thankfully, the code is safe (though we do feel sorry for this guy who's been tortured for nothing).
- Once the Marines realize how important the code is, they assign bodyguards to the code talkers, though the code talkers themselves don't know that they have them. Until after the war, that is.
- Once again, while their Marine buddies go off to chill and relax on R&R in Australia, Chester and the code talkers are sent back to Guadalcanal to make preparations for landing on Iwo Jima. Will this ever end?
No Hero's Welcome: January 1945 to October 1945
- It's late January 1945. Chester and his buddies are back on Guadalcanal training hard in preparation for the landing on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima is important: it's another stepping-stone for an eventual attack on Japan.
- Just as Chester is readying himself for Iwo Jima, he's called over by a man who tells him that he's made his points.
- That is, he's served on enough islands now. He can go home. Oh. My. God. Chester can't believe it. He's going home!
- Chester boards a transport ship headed back to San Francisco. On the ship, he thinks back on his service. It's been difficult as hell, but he's proud of himself. He's helped defend his country, and he can hold his head up high.
- The discharged Marines, Chester included, arrive in San Francisco.
- Chester checks into the Naval hospital in the city to prepare for his return to civilian life. He still follows news of the war, of course. In the papers, he reads about the Marines landing on the island of Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945.
- Soon Chester learns that the Americans take Iwo Jima. A Marine major who was involved with the invasion of Iwo Jima says that the Americans wouldn't have been able to win the island had it not been for the half a dozen code talkers who took part in the invasion. Way to go code talkers!
- More good news soon arrives at the hospital where Chester's resting. Germany surrenders on May 8, 1945.
- But the Japanese don't. The Americans drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August that year. Still, the Japanese don't surrender.
- Tokyo is bombed by 1,600 American aircraft on August 13. Only after two atomic bombs and the bombardment of Tokyo does the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, admit defeat.
- After the war comes to an end in the Pacific, a Tokyo newspaper says that if the Japanese had managed to crack the Navajo code, the Pacific war might have been won by the Japanese.
- Aren't we glad the Japanese never managed to crack that code!
- Back in the hospital in San Francisco, Chester begins thinking about all the things he'd done in the war that went against Navajo belief, like touching dead bodies.
- He starts having loads of nightmares about the war. Who wouldn't?
- Chester doesn't have any of his Navajo buddies with him in the hospital. After five months, a doc finally tells him he's good to go. He can head home.
- Chester leaves San Francisco and returns to the Marine recruiting station in San Diego for a few more months of duty.
- There, he's told by Marine commanders not to talk about the code to anyone. Not his friends, not his family, not anyone.
- Chester is super disappointed that he won't be able to tell his family about the code. He's been through all this and he can't even talk about it?
- By the time Chester receives his discharge papers, describing him as Private First Class Chester Nez, on October 11, 1945, the war has officially come to an end.
- The Americans have saved the world! Kind of.
October 1945 through the late 1940s
- Chester heads to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his older brother Coolidge lives. On the way he stops in Gallup, New Mexico, to pick up an identification card that all Native Americans are required to carry at the time.
- In the federal building where he goes to pick up the card, he's insulted by a civil servant, who tells him he's not a full citizen of the U.S. and that he can't even vote.
- Chester keeps his cool and tells him that he's a Marine who's just returned from serving his country.
- Talk about ingratitude: Chester's just risked his life defending this civil servant's butt, and all he gets in return is insults.
- It's pretty incredible to remember, but Chester reminds us here: Native Americans were made citizens of the U.S. in 1924 (ummm…weren't they here first?), but they weren't given the right to vote until 1948, three years after Chester returns from service.
- Coolidge welcomes his little bro in Albuquerque. Everyone asks Chester about the war, but Chester can't say anything about the code. Talk about self-control.
- After a few months in Albuquerque, Chester heads to the Checkerboard, where Grandmother, Grandfather, Father and Dora still live.
- In Chichiltah, surrounded by the landscape of his beautiful home, Chester says a Navajo prayer.
- When he arrives at Grandmother's hogan, he discovers that a neighbor is holding a ceremony conducted by a medicine man, and most of his family is there.
- Chester heads over to the neighbor's ceremony with his uncle. It's a big ceremony, and there are hundreds of people there.
- Chester's father greets his son, but it's a quiet welcome. The Navajos, Chester tells us, don't celebrate the accomplishments of a person who has done their expected duty. Those Navajos are seriously stoic, aren't they?
- Chester heads back to his grandmother's hogan, where he chills with the family. Everyone is happy to have him back.
- The thing is, it's not that easy for Chester to slip back into his old life. He's haunted by memories of the war. He also feels stifled by the fact that he can't talk about the code with his family.
- After six months at home, Chester's still plagued by nightmares about the war. He tells his family he's having terrible dreams about the Japanese.
- The family holds an "Enemy Way" ceremony to help Chester get over the trauma of the war. They go to a "hand-trembler," a medicine man, who decides which healing ceremony Chester needs.
- The hand-trembler decides that Chester needs a "Bad Way" ceremony, which will help him get rid of the evil presence of the Japanese.
- Chester's father chooses a medicine man to perform the ceremony. Navajos from everywhere come to Chester's "sing," or ceremony, which takes place over four days.
- Thank goodness for that ceremony! Chester definitely feels better afterwards, and the nightmares and visions begin to go away.
Singing, Boxing, and the Korean War: Late 1940s: Haskell
- After two years on the Checkerboard, Chester decides that it's time to move on. He wants to go back to school, since he didn't finish high school before joining up with the Marines.
- An old teacher that Chester had in Fort Defiance (no, not a scary matron, a nice guy), tells Chester that he should enroll in the Haskell Institute, an all-Indian high school in Lawrence, Kansas.
- Chester enrolls in Haskell. He works jobs on different farms to help pay for his room and board. Chester makes lots of friends at the school and plays plenty of sports. He's a big fan of boxing.
- While at Haskell, Chester also takes up singing. Clearly our Navajo hero is multi-talented: not only can he develop awesome military codes, he can also sing.
- One day while at school, he sees an ad in the newspaper by a popular radio show looking for talent. Auditions are going to be held in Topeka.
- Chester goes for the audition. Even though he isn't selected as a finalist, he's happy that he went.
Late 1940s and 1950: University of Kansas
- After graduating from high school, Chester heads to the University of Kansas, where he majors in fine arts. He wants to become a commercial artist.
- It's time for romance (we knew it was coming). At a cookout with his university friends, Chester meets a young, beautiful woman—a fellow Navajo—named Ethel Pearl Catron. The two hit it off and start dating.
- But after two years at the University, Chester is again called up to war. He'd joined the Reserves after returning from the Pacific.
- Now he's called up to serve in the Korean War. The fledgling romance with Ethel is cut short.
1950-51: Korean War
- Chester goes home to the Checkerboard before heading to the Korean War. He helps out on Grandmother's land, and then heads to Camp Elliott in San Diego on September 14, 1950.
- After five days at Camp Elliott, Chester is shipped out to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Not so bad, after all—it's a million times better here than it was in the Pacific.
- At Pearl Harbor, Chester performs guard duty and helps unload transport ships.
- He's then sent to Pocatello, Idaho, where he's assigned guard duty. This Korean War service is proving to be easy-peasy. He doesn't even have to leave the U.S.!
- Chester is allowed to go home in 1951, before the war ends in 1953. He's promoted to Marine corporal.
- After he's discharged, Chester heads to his brother Coolidge's home in Albuquerque.
Wedding and White Man's Work: Early 1950s
- Chester returns to the University of Kansas to finish college, where he also rekindles the romance with Ethel.
- On a visit to Ethel's sister's house in Window Rock, Arizona, Chester asks Ethel to be his wife. She says yes, of course. Who'd turn down our Chester?
- Ethel and Chester travel to Chilocco, Oklahoma, where Ethel's mother works, so he can officially ask her mom for permission to marry Ethel.
- The mom says yes, and Chester and Ethel set a date for the wedding: summer of 1952.
- Now that Chester's about to start his own family, he needs to find a job, and so he moves to Albuquerque to look for work.
- Chester finds a house for himself and Ethel in Albuquerque. They have a half-Anglo, half-Native American wedding.
- The Anglo half of the wedding takes place in St. Michael's, Arizona.
- At the church, in his Marine uniform, Chester is nervous. But when he sees his beautiful bride walking down the aisle, his nerves calm down.
- The couple then drives over to nearby Hunter's Point, where a Navajo medicine man does the Navajo part of the wedding and blesses them.
- After the blessing, both Chester and Ethel's Navajo families give the young couple advice about how to lead a happily married life.
- Once the wedding is all done, Chester and Ethel return to Albuquerque.
- He finds work in the paint shop at the Veterans' Affairs Hospital in Albuquerque.
- Things are coming together for Nez: he has a wife, a job, and a life that he is happy with. Finally, our brave Navajo Marine is getting a break.
Children: Early to Late 1950s
- In Albuquerque, Chester takes up hunting with a couple of Navajo friends who had also served in the military.
- On their first hunt in New Mexico, Chester kills a deer and gives thanks with corn pollen. Chester takes most of the deer back home to Ethel, so they can have some yummy deer meat.
- At this point in the chapter, Chester takes us forward in time. He's in Gallup, New Mexico, at the Catholic hospital there. Ethel is in the delivery room. A doctor arrives and tells Chester that Ethel's given birth to a daughter, but it was a difficult birth. Chester and Ethel's first child lives for only half an hour.
- The couple is very saddened by the loss of their daughter, but soon Ethel's pregnant again. This time she has a boy, and he survives. They name him Stanley. Michael, their second son, is born in 1955, followed by two more sons, Ray and Albert.
- Tragedy strikes the family again when Albert, whom the family nicknames "Chubby," dies in an accident at a train station. While he's goofing around (as toddlers tend to do), he falls and hits his head on a step.
- Chubby's death is a huge blow to Chester and Ethel. But the couple forges ahead.
- They decide to adopt Tyah, the son of Ethel's niece. Ethel's niece is an unmarried teenage mom, and she doesn't want to keep the baby, so Chester and Ethel step in and give the little guy a home.
The Secret is Out: 1968 and Beyond
- The Navajo code remains a secret for twenty-three years after the end of the war. In 1968, the military declassifies it.
- Finally, Chester can tell his family about being a code talker. His dad, who is still alive, is so happy and proud when he finds out what his son was really up to in the Pacific.
- Chester becomes something of a celebrity. He speaks at Harvard about his World War II experiences, and books about the code talkers begin to appear.
- In 1971, President Richard Nixon honors the code talks with a certificate thanking them for their honorable service. About time, we'd say.
- But just as the code is declassified, and other people begin learning about Chester's heroism during the war, his nightmares begin to recur.
- Ethel tells him that he needs another "Enemy Way" ceremony to get rid of the nightmares. They decide to head to Chinle, Arizona, where she has a lot of relatives, to hold another protective ceremony.
- At Chinle, Chester's older brother, Charlie Gray, oversees the ceremony. Things don't go so well, though.
- First, one of the drums used in the ceremony breaks, then a girl taking part in the traditional Squaw Dance faints.
- Young kids drink alcohol during the ceremony, but alcohol is a big no-no during Navajo ceremonies.
- To top it all off, a rattlesnake tries to enter the hogan where Chester and family are staying. All bad signs, we'd say.
- These things worry Chester. He's afraid that someone who doesn't like him has caused bad things to happen to him and his family.
- After the Enemy Way ceremony, Chester's relatives also decide to put on a "Holy Way" ceremony to make sure that things are really set right. This ceremony lasts for another three days, and afterwards he feels better.
- But all is not well in the Nez household: Chester and Ethel's marriage goes through rough times. Ethel begins working outside of the home, and she and Chester draw apart. Chester spends more time with the kids, rather than with Ethel.
- Chester tells us that he loves spending time with his kids. One day, he nails a basketball backboard to the back of the house to surprise the kids when they come back from school.
- His kids are super-happy with the surprise, and they invite their friends over to play basketball.
- Ethel and Chester's relationship doesn't improve, and finally, they decide to get a divorce. Chester gets custody of all four boys, since Ethel doesn't even bother to show up to the divorce hearing.
1974 to 1990s
- Chester is woken up by a knock on the door in the middle of the night. There's a police officer at the door. He tells him that his oldest son, Stanley, twenty-one years old, has been killed in a car accident.
- Chester is devastated. He finds out that Stanley had been killed on his way back from after party where there had been lots of drinking.
- Stanley had left the party on foot, but then hitched a ride with a drunk driver. The car smashed into a cement culvert.
- Just days before his death, Stanley had talked to his dad about a drawing that he'd started, and told Chester that he'd have to finish it for him. Now, Chester thinks this was an omen.
- How do we get on after we've lost another child? This is the third child that Chester loses. He's a warrior, though, so he tries to get on with his life as best he can.
- Chester's surviving three sons, Michael, Ray and Tyah, all graduate from school and move out of the house.
- In the mid-1970s, Chester retires from the VA Hospital and moves back to Chichiltah, to his grandmother's land (we assume his grandma's dead by now—Chester doesn't tell us).
- Dora, his sister, still lives on the land. Chester helps her take care of the house, the livestock, and the family's land.
- In 1982, President Ronald Reagan gives the code talkers a certificate of recognition and declares August 14 National Code Talkers Day. (Now we know to mark that in our calendars!)
- Ethel, Chester's ex-wife, dies in the late 1980s. Nez moves back to Albuquerque to live with his son Mike, Mike's wife, and their three children.
- On September 17, 1992, an exhibit honoring the code talkers is dedicated at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
2000 to 2001
- More and more people are beginning to understand what an important role the code talkers played in beating the Japanese in World War II.
- In April 2000, Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico proposes the "Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act." It's signed into law in December by President Bill Clinton.
- The act calls for the recognition of the code talkers, and authorizes the awarding of Congressional Gold Medals to the twenty-nine original code talkers and silver medals to the code talkers that came after them.
- The "original twenty-nine" and their families head to Washington, D.C. Four of the five surviving original code talkers make the trip, including our hero Chester.
- In the Capital Rotunda in Washington, Chester, the other code talkers, and their families wait for the president to make an appearance. (We're in 2001 by now—George W. Bush is in the White House).
- President Bush arrives and gives a speech honoring the code talkers. The president awards each of the code talkers the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow.
- At a reception hosted by MGM Studios, MGM announces that they will release a movie, Windtalkers, about the World War II code talkers.
- While most of the code talkers are honored at this ceremony, Chester tells us that there are between 70 and 100 code talkers who were probably never documented, and therefore would never be recognized for their service.
- Isn't that sad? At least Chester's nice enough to mention them in this book.
- After the gold medal presentation, everyone—newspapers, television, radio—wants to interview Chester. He travels all over the country talking about his code-talking experience.
- In 2004, the Boston Red Sox ask Chester to bless them and toss out the game ball during that year's World Series.
- For the first time in eighty-six years, the Red Sox win the World Series. Way to go Chester! We know it's all 'cause of you.
Celebration: June 28, 2009
- Chester wakes up on a Sunday. His family (son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren) help dress him in preparation for a celebration hosted by the extended family in his honor.
- Chester and the family head to Chichiltah, where the celebration will be held. Chester's is eighty-eight years old by this point. His left leg has been amputated at mid calf, because of complications from diabetes.
- There are more than 100 attendees at the event, which celebrates Chester's World War II service. Chester feels all warm and fuzzy inside, knowing that his work as a code talker has made a difference, and that his family and friends are there to celebrate with him.
- Remembering his gold medal and all the recognition he's received, Chester reflects on his life in this final chapter.
- It's been quite a life. It was full of challenges: everything from war, divorce, to the death of his children, but he's weathered them all.
- What's especially satisfying for him, though, is that he and his fellow code talkers have become part of a new oral and written tradition.
- It's a tradition that celebrates the Navajos' contribution to defending their country during World War II.
- The code talkers' story is not one of sorrow, like the Long Walk or the Great Livestock Massacre. It's a story of triumph. Hells yeah.
As of January 2011
- Chester's tells us that his son Ray died in May 2008, and Dora, his sister, died during Christmas that same year. Mike and Tyah are the only survivors of his six children.
- Another celebration is held for Chester in Chichiltah on Father's Day, June 20, 2010. (Can we get enough of celebrating this guy? Nope).
- Three code talkers—Thomas Begay, Robert Walley, and Chester—are honored. Chester is the only one of the "original twenty-nine" attending.
- Chester remembers giving a talk to kindergartners. He'd tried to make them understand why the Navajo code was so important in winning the war.
- Even though Chester is ill with diabetes and both of his legs have been amputated, he continues to do book signings, attend award ceremonies, and give speeches.
- He tells us that he always travels with a medicine bag in his pocket. That medicine bag has sure done a lot to keep Chester safe.
- Chester Nez died in 2014 at the age of 93.