|Written by Mark Lineberger|
|Friday, 01 April 2011 00:00|
The second-to-last living Navajo Code Talker and Camp Verde resident Lloyd Oliver died March 16 at a hospice in Avondale. He was 88 years old.
The New Mexico-born Oliver was one of 29 men who helped the U.S. military create an unbreakable code that confounded the forces of Imperial Japan as World War II raged across the Pacific.
The code was no mystery to Oliver and his fellow Navajo — it was their native language, something the Japanese of the era had no chance at deciphering.
In early 1942, just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor shocked America from its complacency, the enemy had proven wildly successful at cracking even the most complex codes the Americans could devise. But military commanders were betting that the Japanese would have no way of cracking one of the most complex languages of the American Southwest, and they were right. It was a tactic that had been used with other Native languages dated back as far as World War I; but perhaps nowhere was it utilized as effectively as in those turbulent and uncertain years of the 1940s.
As children, Oliver and the others lived in an era when Native American children were frequently admonished by white teachers for speaking their native languages. Regardless, Oliver and his fellow Devil Dogs put everything on the line to serve this country.
They didn’t just sit in an office somewhere talking into a microphone. Oliver and his comrades were often in the thick of things.
The took their radios close to the action, nowhere close to real safety. Oliver’s group of Marines found themselves being strafed the first day they landed on Guadalcanal.
While they spoke their native tongue, the Code Talkers didn’t just talk openly. Code words were used and frequently updated and changed. Speaking Navajo alone wasn’t enough to be able to understand what these men were sending over the radio waves.
While they provided a valuable service to the nation, first and foremost, these men were Marines. Oliver happened to be a sniper and a skilled scout.
The skills of the original Navajo Code Talkers set the stage for the military to recruit nearly 400 more Native Americans to fill the important role of protecting American lives with their unbreakable codes.
To Iwo Jima and beyond, the Code Talkers were instrumental in keeping American secrets safe from the Japanese.
By the time the war finally ended in atomic flashes, Oliver and those who had served with him found themselves under another cloak of secrecy.
Despite their help in winning the war, their role wasn’t acknowledged publicly by the government until 1968.
Their actions were further recognized by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 with the declaration of Navajo Code Talkers Day, but it would still be another two decades before Oliver and the few surviving members of his original group of Marines were decorated for their crucial service.
In July of 2001, Oliver and some of his fellow Marines, including those who had died, were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush.
Oliver had help defend his country through speech, but old age slowly took it from him.
He moved to Camp Verde to live with family in recent years, but the words of his fellow Marine John Brown from that 2001 ceremony speak volumes to the experiences of all the Code Talkers.
“We have seen much in our lives. We have experienced war and peace. We know the value of freedom and democracy that this great nation embodies. But our experiences have also shown us how fragile these things can be, and how we must stay ever vigilant to protect them,” Brown said. “As Code Talkers, as Marines, we did our part to protect these values. It is my hope that our young people will carry on this honorable tradition as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers flow.”
In peacetime, Oliver went on to become a jewelry maker specializing in silver.
Oliver leaves behind a wife, five children, six stepchildren, 19 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.
Oliver’s death leaves New Mexico resident Chester Nez as the only remaining living original Code Talker.
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