Alumni Profile: Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker

War hero receives degree after decades of secrecy and service

Chester Nez

Update: Chester Nez, a hero and member of the Jayhawk family, passed away Wednesday, June 2, 2014. 

Decades after he last set foot on campus, Chester Nez can proudly call himself a war hero and a University of Kansas graduate. Back in 1952, he could not proclaim either. How he earned both achievements is a story 60 years in the making.

When Nez began his studies at KU after World War II, he carried a great secret.

He was a hero of the recently won war. Yet he could not tell anyone, not even his family, about how he had helped push the United States to victory.

Nez was one of the original members of the all-Navajo 382nd Marine Platoon – better known as the Navajo Code Talkers. He served as a Marine in the Pacific Theater from 1942 until 1945, transmitting messages in a code based on the Navajo language that was never broken by the Japanese.

The complex Navajo language was unwritten at the time and known to few outside of the American Southwest. In Nez’s earlier life, he had been prohibited from using his language. In his boarding school, speaking Navajo was forbidden in an attempt to assimilate Nez and other Native American children by eliminating their native culture and traditions.

The native language of Nez and his fellow Marines in the platoon proved invaluable to the victory over Japan in WWII. The Code Talkers developed the astoundingly successful code, conveying series of seemingly unrelated words. The code is the only one unbroken in modern warfare.

“They tried everything in their power to break the code, but they never did,” Nez said.

However, their contributions would go unknown for years. Because the project was classified, the Code Talkers could not talk about their service.

Becoming a Jayhawk

After the war, Nez took advantage of funding through the GI Bill to attend KU. Nez pursued studies in visual art at KU from 1946 to 1952, taking time off to serve in the military again, this time in the Korean War. He took classes for 10 semesters, all the while unknown to classmates as a war hero.

Before he could finish his KU degree, Nez’s GI Bill funding ran out. He had to abandon his studies at KU without earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

After leaving KU, Nez returned to his home state of New Mexico. Even then Nez kept his important role in the war a secret – including from his family. He was finally able to share his achievements more than two decades after his WWII service. In 1968, the story of the Code Talkers was unclassified.

Now the world knows who Nez is and what he gave to the country. In 2001 he received a Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush for his service as a Code Talker. He co-wrote a memoir with author Judith Avila, “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII,” released in 2011.

In November 2012, Nez finally received the degree he had worked for decades ago. The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences presented Nez with his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in front of a crowd of hundreds at the Lied Center pavilion.

The ceremony recognized Nez as an American hero, the last surviving original Code Talker and, now, a KU graduate. Dean of the College, Danny Anderson, presented Nez with his diploma, endorsing his contributions during the war and his studies while at KU. His graduation ceremony highlighted his history and his language that strengthened the nation.

Aside from his degree, Nez received several other accolades and gifts. Nez was presented a key to the city by the Lawrence mayor, along with ceremonial blankets, a class ring and a cedar box from other organizations from Haskell Indian Nations University and KU.

After the long trajectory of his life, Nez said he never expected to receive his degree. He stated his feelings at the ceremony succinctly and clearly.

“I’m very happy about it,” Nez said.