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Joe Vandever Sr., Navajo Code Talker, dies at 96

FILE - In this Feb. 4, 2011, file photo, Leland Anthony, Arizona Rep. for Indian Health Incorp., left, speaks with Navajo code talker Joe Vandever Sr. during Native American Day at the roundhouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One of the few remaining Navajo Code Talkers who used their native language to confound the Japanese in World War II has died. Joe Vandever Sr. died of health complications Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Haystack, New Mexico, west of Grants, according to his family. He was 96. Tribal leaders called Vandever a "great warrior" and a "compassionate family man," and asked Navajos to keep his spirit and his family in their prayers. (Jane Phillips/The New Mexican via AP)

Joe Vandever Sr., a member of the top-secret Navajo Code Talker program that developed an unbreakable code language during World War II, has died, according to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Vandever was 96; his family says he died from health complications, according to Nez. He died Friday morning in Haystack, New Mexico, Nez said, five days shy of his 97th birthday.

“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.

Vandever served largely in the Pacific region during his service in the US military. He enlisted with the Marine Corps in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 26, 1943, and was honorably discharged as corporal on January 22, 1946.

Vandever was one of hundreds of Navajo tribe members who were trained as code talkers in World War II. Between 375 and 420 Navajos used a secret code language to send information on tactics, troop movements and orders over the radio and telephone during the war. The language was indecipherable to the Japanese and a key factor in American military victories at Iwo Jima, Saipan and several other major battles.

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

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was one of many to pay her respects to Vandever, saying she is “forever grateful to the Navajo Code Talkers for their incredible service to the nation.”

Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, a former fighter pilot and veteran, also 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. As a teenager, he bravely answered the call to serve our country in WWII.”

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