FARMINGTON — The last member of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers has died.
Chester Nez, of Albuquerque, died Wednesday morning of kidney failure, according to The Associated Press.
Nez, 93, was part of the group of code talkers who transmitted messages in a code based on the Navajo language during the Pacific Theater of World War II.
He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 and became a member of the all-Navajo 382nd Platoon.
Nez served as a corporal and saw combat in Guadalcanal, Guam, Peleiu and Bogainville, according to a press release from the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President.
He was honorably discharged in 1945.
Nez also served in the Marine Corps Reserves and returned to combat in the Korean War.
"I am very proud that I was able to serve my country. I did my part for our country and for my people, and it has been a great pleasure for me to do my duty," Nez said in 2011 when he visited Aztec.
Nez was born on Jan. 23, 1921, in Chichiltah. He was Dibé Lizhiní (Black Sheep), born for Tsénahabilnii (Sleeping Rock People).
From 1946 to 1952, Nez used the GI Bill to attend the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., to study commercial arts but did not complete his degree because the funding ran out, according to a KU press release.
In November 2012, Nez traveled to Lawrence to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree from the university.
He was one of the original code talkers who received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush in 2001.
Nez's story was published in the 2011 memoir, "Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII," which he wrote with author Judith Avila.
The book was selected in 2012 for the One Book, One Community program at San Juan College.
That same year, Nez and Avila spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about the memoir and held a book signing at the college.
"I often think about all the things I went through during World War II," Nez said at the presentation. "The worst thing was landing on the beach. I was a pretty lucky guy. I was very glad to see my relatives and all my friends (again)."
Christopher Schipper was chairman of the program when the book was selected.
"His book and his message was compelling," Schipper said, adding that Nez's goal was to talk to young Navajos about the importance of their language and culture.
The program also wanted to recognize the code talkers' service, and, with many of them growing older, the ability to interact and to learn from one of them was a "no brainer," Schipper said.
"There's never been a turnout as big as that night," Schipper said. "It was amazing."
After news of Nez's death broke, elected officials expressed their condolences. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., issued a joint statement.
Udall spoke about Nez fighting to protect his culture and the country while Heinrich called Nez a "true American hero."
"Mr. Nez grew up at a time when speaking his native Navajo was prohibited and punished, yet it did not stop him from holding on to his culture and keeping his language alive," Luján said.
Navajo Nation Council Pro Tem Speaker LoRenzo Bates described Nez as a "highly respected and distinguished warrior."
"We will always be grateful for his sacrifice and brave service for our country, and, more importantly, for his selfless actions to protect our people and the great Navajo Nation," Bates said in a statement.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed a proclamation on Wednesday to have tribal flags flown at half-staff from Thursday through Sunday in honor of Nez.
"Chester Nez and the rest of the original 29 now belong to the ages. We salute their valiant service and memory," Shelly said.
A burial will be early next week at the Santa Fe National Cemetery in Santa Fe, according to the press release from Shelly's office.Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.