SANTA FE — U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Kyle Lewis paused under a tree after presenting a folded United States flag to the family of the late Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez.

 

"It is definitely a great honor," Lewis said of the presentation at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

Dozens of family, friends, veterans and community members attended the funeral Mass for Nez on Tuesday morning at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Albuquerque. After the Mass, there was a procession to Santa Fe National Cemetery, where Nez was laid to rest.

Nez, 93, died on June 4 at his home in Albuquerque. He was the last surviving member of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, who developed and transmitted messages in a code based on the Navajo language during the Pacific Theater of World War II.

Nez, who was Dibé Lizhiní (Black Sheep), born for Tsénahabilnii (Sleeping Rock People), enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942 and was honorably discharged in 1945 with the rank of corporal. He also served in the Marine Corps Reserves and returned to combat in the Korean War.

Lewis started his Marine Corps service 11 years ago after graduating from Coconino High School in Flagstaff, Ariz. He learned about the code talkers before enlisting and saw how beloved they are on the Navajo Nation.

"After I joined the Marine Corps, I found out everyone loves the code talkers. They talk about them," Lewis said.

Father Rick Zerwas, of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, officiated the hour-long funeral Mass. He welcomed people by saying, "We come today to give thanks to God for a hero ... a hero to his country, a hero to his people and, most importantly, to his family."

Zerwas said Nez was a "humble man" who questioned the public's fascination with his story.

"He oftentimes would say, 'Why are you writing about me? There's so many others,'" Zerwas said, adding that Nez's humility, along with his patience, reflected the kind of person he was.

Pallbearers escort Chester Nez’s coffin on Tuesday after funeral services at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Albuquerque. Nez was the last of
Pallbearers escort Chester Nez's coffin on Tuesday after funeral services at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Albuquerque. Nez was the last of the original Navajo Code Talkers. He died last week at the age of 93. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

Zerwas also spoke about Nez's boarding school experience and how school personnel mistreated Navajo students for speaking their native language and used cruel tactics to force them to learn English.

"I understand right after that, Chester realized that if he wasn't forced to learn English, he would never been a code talker," Zerwas said, recalling a conversation he had with Nez.

Like many have touched on over the years, it's the language Nez was forced to abandon that protected the United States and the Allies during World War II, Zerwas said. He added Nez's life was "poured out" for his country, his people and his family.

A number of dignitaries attended Tuesday's service, including Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and his wife, Martha, Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, Navajo Code Talkers Association President Peter MacDonald, Navajo Code Talkers Association Vice President Roy Hawthorne, five Navajo Code Talkers and New Mexico Department of Veteran Services Secretary Timothy Hale.

The last time MacDonald saw Nez was four months ago when the two men had lunch together in Albuquerque.

"I hate to see him go," MacDonald said. "We all will miss him."

During the funeral Mass, Naize presented a letter of condolence from the tribal council and Shelly presented a tribal flag, proclamation and a story about the U.S. flag to Nez's family, which was accepted by the late code talker's son, Michael.

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Kyle Lewis presents Michael Nez, the son of late Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez, with the U.S. flag on Tuesday during a burial
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Kyle Lewis presents Michael Nez, the son of late Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez, with the U.S. flag on Tuesday during a burial service for Chester Nez at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Chester Nez, 93, was among the men who transmitted messages in a code based on the Navajo language during World War II. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

"He truly exemplified the tremendous power of Diné language to shield our country," Naize said.

Other presentations were made to the family during the burial service in Santa Fe.

New Mexico Secretary of Indian Affairs Arthur Allison gave the family the executive order ordering flags to fly at half-staff across the state and a message of condolence from Gov. Susana Martinez.

Allison recalled meeting Nez during American Indian Day at the New Mexico State Legislature.

"Our Navajo heroes are the code talkers," Allison said, adding that placing Nez to rest in Santa Fe was an honor.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.