Prominent Navajo Code Talker dies in Arizona

PHOENIX Wed Jan 4, 2012 6:47pm EST

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - A prominent veteran of the Navajo Code Talkers, who confounded enemy combatants in World War Two by using the Navajo language as a battlefield cipher in the South Pacific, has died, a veteran's association said on Wednesday.

Keith M. Little, 87, served in the Marine Corps 4th Marine Division in the Pacific and was president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association.

He died on Tuesday evening at a medical center in Fort Defiance, Ariz, the Association said in a statement.

The code talkers used a unique cipher based on the Navajo language to encrypt messages sent by field telephones and radios throughout the Pacific theater during the war.

It was regarded as secure from Japanese code breakers as the consonant-rich language was only spoken in the U.S. Southwest, was known by fewer than 30 non-Navajo people, and had no written form.

A young Navajo shepherd at the time, Little attempted to sign up for the Marines at age 15 in 1942, but was turned down as under age.

He finally succeeded in joining in 1943 at age 17. He trained as a code talker and was sent to the South Pacific, where the specialists served in all six Marine divisions and took part in major assaults.

In an interview in 2007, Little told Reuters how he scrambled down a cargo net with his radio pack and rifle, leaping into a landing craft in the roiling ocean off the Marshall Islands in early 1944. Later he landed under fire on the beach head, sprinting for cover.

The Navajos sent and received messages as war planes raced overhead, artillery pounded and troops fought with fixed bayonets.

The Navajos' reputation grew as island after island fell and was sealed at Iwo Jima, which the Marine Corps took back in a 35-day battle in which nearly 20,000 Japanese and 7,000 Americans died.

In that battle six Navajo code talkers worked around the clock, sending and receiving more than 800 vital messages without error in the first two days of the battle alone.

In his later years as president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, Little took responsibility for safeguarding the memory of the 420 Navajo Code Talkers. He was a driving force behind the National Navajo Code Talkers Museum & Veterans Center, a project still in development.

"This was no ordinary contribution to America," Little told Reuters. "The Navajo Code Talkers did something unique, incredible ... and it should be observed."

A public memorial service is being planned for Friday, January 6, in Window Rock, Arizona, with the funeral service scheduled for Saturday, January 7 in Fort Defiance.

(Editing by Peter Bohan)

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