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‘War hero’ Navajo code talker Joe Vandever Sr. dies at 96

Navajo Code Talker Joe Vandever Sr. listens to Rep. Gosar's opening remarks honoring the Navajo Code Talkers today in the house chamber. Dec. 7. 2011. (Jared King/Navajo Nation Washington Office/Released)
February 03, 2020

Joe Vandever Sr., a member of the top-secret Navajo code talker program that helped win World War II, died Friday at the age of 96.

He died from health complications, his family said, in Haystack, N.M, and was just five days away from turning 97, CNN reported.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez announced Vandever Sr.’s passing in a tweet Friday morning, saying the Navajo Nation is “greatly saddened by the loss of another great warrior.”

“Joe Vandever Sr. was a great warrior and a compassionate family man. In every aspect of his life, he was a loving person who cared greatly for his people,” Navajo Vice President Myron Lizer said.

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The Navajo code talker program was designed to create a code to communicate with troops during World War II. The Japanese were unable to break the code primarily because it was translated from the Navajo language, and U.S. enemies assumed it was in English.

Vandever Sr. served with hundreds of other members of the Navajo tribe who trained in code talking during the war. There were between 375 and 420 Navajo tribe members in the war that used the code to send troop movements, tactics and other orders over radio and telephone.

The Navajo code talker program was a key factor in the U.S. victories at Iwo Jima and Saipan.

He enlisted in the Marines on March 26, 1943, and ended up serving in combat in Guam, Marianas Islands, Okinawa, Window Rock, Arizona, the northern Solomon Islands, Bougainville, Emirau Islands, Ryukyus Islands, Occupation of Japan, and Occupation of China. He was honorably discharged on Jan. 22, 1946.

Vandever Sr. was married to his wife Bessie, who died last September, for 73 years. He is survived by eight children, 36 grandchildren, 55 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

Vandever’s passing has sparked many responses from local politicians in the region.

Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, a former fighter pilot and veteran, tweeted her condolences.

“Saddened to learn of the loss of Joe Vandever Sr. I had the honor of meeting this hero last August in Window Rock on National Navajo Code Talkers Day,” McSally wrote. “As a teenager, he bravely answered the call to serve our country in WWII.”

“We received word that we lost a true Navajo and American hero, Navajo Code Talker Joe Vandever Sr.,” said Speaker Seth Damon with the 24th Navajo Nation Council in a news release. “Godspeed to him during his next journey.”

“It is disheartening news to hear of the loss of another Navajo Nation and U.S. national war hero,” said 24th Navajo National Council Chairman Daniel Tso in the release. “Fellow Navajo Code Talkers relayed stores of hero Joe Vandever Sr. orating protection prayers for all while in the field of battle. This is truly a value: thinking of protecting one’s fellow Navajo. Godspeed, hero Joe Vandever Sr.”

New Mexico Governor Michelle Grisham said on Twitter that she is  “forever grateful to the Navajo Code Talkers for their incredible service to the nation, and I know all New Mexicans share that gratitude with me. My thoughts and prayers are with Joe Vandever’s family – may he rest in peace.”