“Navajo belief forbids contact with the dead, but we waded through floating bodies, intent on not becoming one of them. Close your mind, I told myself. I tried not to think about all those dead men, their chindi violently released from this life. I am a Marine. Marines move forward. I tried to make myself numb.
“We pushed bodies and parts of bodies aside, some looking more like raw beef than the limbs of human beings, fought our way forward, and finally fell gasping on the beach.
“Onshore, we attempted to find our assigned unit. Japanese fighter planes—Zeros—flew overhead in a formation that echoed the V-formations of Canadian geese. The Zero no longer dominated Allied fighter planes as it had in the first months of the war, but those bright red disks, sun symbols, on the underside of its wings sent a chill down my spine. I knew those enemy planes carried machine guns, cannons, and bombs.
“We found General Vandergrift, who assigned us to Signal Officer Lieutenant Hunt. Following Hunt’s orders, we moved to the tree line on the edge of the beach and hauled small folding shovels from our backpacks. Making ourselves as small as possible, crouching at the tree line, about 150 yards from the surf, we performed our first battle duty: digging foxholes. Every feverish thrust and twist of the shovel brought us close to crude shelter from land-based bullets, but nothing would protect us from the bombs and bullets dropping from the sky. Enemy fire exploded around us from every direction. Rainwater filled the holes as we dug.
“All those bodies in the water,” I said to Roy.
I stabbed my shovel deep into the sand. “We didn’t really have a choice.”
Chester Nez, Code Talker, p. 18-19.
What is memorable about this passage from the memoir of Chester Nez, a young Marine landing on Guadalcanal on November 4, 1942, is the clash of cultural values that confronted him before he had even crossed the surf to the beach. One of the young Navajo men trained as a code talker, Nez and his fellow Navajo considered themselves to be warriors through their tribal ancestry, before they ever engaged in military service in the US armed forces.
But as Nez relates in the first sentence of the passage, the Navajo tradition held that they did not touch or disturb the dead. The reader can only imagine what it must have felt like to be Chester Nez in that moment, going into war for the first time, and being confronted with such a deep cultural taboo as he waded ashore to join his fellow Marines. Another WWII veteran, Paul Fussell, has written that the overwhelming majority of movies and visual productions of the war do not convey what truly happens on the battlefield: Soldiers do not usually die by a shot through the chest, but rather that bodies are dismembered, blown apart, and often unrecognizable as human beings when struck by modern weaponry. Passing through the fleshy carnage and bloody surf must have been an especially harrowing baptism into war for Nez.
Nez does not use the word horror in his passage, but as a reader I found that word springing into my mind. As a reader, I also intuitively understood why Nez does not use that term—his strength of will was so strong that he was able to shield his mind from what he had to do in that moment. Perhaps the self-interest of survival played a decisive conscious role in his mind, as he somewhat nonchalantly writes that he was simply trying to avoid becoming one of the dead.
Once on the beach, Nez performs one of the simplest actions a Marine can take for self-preservation when he digs a hole in the sand for cover. In the midst of the fighting going on all around them, the safety provided by the sandy foxhole is no doubt fragile, and Nez notes that no protection is afforded from bombs or bullets coming from the heavens above. It is only then that he can process the cultural violation that he has already experienced by talking to his fellow Navajo code talker and friend, Roy. Their brief exchange of a few sentences and words is powerful because there is in a sense so little to say about their experience: They could not avoid it, and did what had to be done.
In a symbolic sense, it is appropriate that rain is falling on the two young Navajo Marines on the beach on Guadalcanal as they speak. Rain from the heavens is pure. Without explicitly saying so, the rain implies a divine understanding and perhaps even cleansing of the violation that they have had to endure in the surf. This passage by Chester Nez is a powerful and unforgettable depiction of the compromises, burdens, and even permanent changes that war imposes on the men who must wage it.
Note: This is the second of two posts on Nez's memoir. Read Part One.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD , Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.