Study Guide

Code Talker Summary

By Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila

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!

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