Chester Nez hailed from Western New Mexico, went to World War II in the Pacific and spent his remaining days in Albuquerque. Now the final resting spot for the last of the original Navajo Code Talkers is the Santa Fe National Cemetery, alongside tens of thousands of other military veterans.
As he was laid to rest Tuesday afternoon, relatives and close friends of Nez took refuge from the heat under a large tent surrounded by volunteers holding American flags. As is customary with military funerals, service members draped a flag over the coffin before folding it and presenting it to the family.
Nez, who died June 4 at the age of 93, had been the last survivor among 29 original Navajo Code Talkers who confounded the Japanese by relaying radio messages in a code that no one could break.
Former Marine and Santa Fe police chaplain Jose Villegas offered a prayer before the deceased man’s son, Michael Nez, offered a public statement, thanking everyone “from the deepest part of my heart” for attending funeral and burial ceremonies Tuesday. He also spoke of his father’s military experience and fellow Code Talkers.
“They’re all together now,” Michael Nez said. “I am sure they’re happy that my father is with them.”
Dignitaries such as high-ranking Marine Corps officers, New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services Secretary Timothy Hale and several Code Talkers — who weren’t part of the original 29 but also served during World War II — were among those who paid their respects.
A funeral Mass had taken place earlier in the day at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Albuquerque. From there, a procession of law enforcement officers guided Nez and his family to the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
The funeral services drew dozens of friends and family, including some who only briefly knew him, such as Irene House. She said she met Nez two years ago at the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, where he signed a copy of his memoir for her, Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII. She recalled speaking to him in Navajo, and she said she treated him like her grandfather, saying they were both men of few words.
More than 70 motorcyclists also attended the event, some of whom had known Nez, such as former Marine Ken Nadeau of the American Legion Riders. Nadeau said his uncle also had fought in World War II in the Okinawa area, and that he worked directly with the Code Talkers.
“It’s part of our history,” Nadeau said. “I am happy to be here and support it.”
Many in the crowd appeared to fight back tears. Others unflinchingly stared at the ground or at the waving American flags. When the pallbearers lifted the brown casket from the hearse and onto a raised table for public viewing, mourners surrounded it. Smartphones and digital cameras in hand, they snapped dozens of pictures. Later, the same people laid roses — yellow, red and white — atop the coffin. The final interment was private, per the family’s request.
James Sander, director of the Santa Fe National Cemetery, said it is an honor for both cemetery staff and the city of Santa Fe to have Nez laid to rest here. For those who want to visit the grave, he noted that Nez’s tombstone is located in Section 21 on the cemetery’s eastern side.
Though Nez had called Albuquerque home, he had grown up in Western New Mexico with his grandparents before attending an Arizona boarding school. He enlisted in the military, where Nez and his 28 Navajo compatriots eventually created their now-famous code.
Even in his advanced age, Nez found the time and energy to speak at local events, such as the dedication of a statue in the Santa Fe National Cemetery or the annual Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, and he was not an uncommon sight at the state Legislature.