"My weapon was my language," World War II Marine veteran Joe Morris Sr. told a crowd of nearly 200 in a San Bernardino park on Veterans Day in 2004. "We saved a lot of lives."
Morris, one of the Navajo code talkers whose use of their native language in transmitting messages successfully thwarted Japanese code breakers in the Pacific during World War II, died July 17 at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Medical Center in Loma Linda of complications from a stroke, said his daughter, Colleen Anderson. He was 85.
Born on the Navajo reservation in Indian Wells, Ariz., Morris was one of about 400 Navajo code talkers who underwent extensive training at a communications school at Camp Pendleton to memorize the undecipherable code based on their complex, unwritten language.
The code grew to more than 600 Navajo terms by the end of the war. A submarine, for example, became "besh-lo," which means iron fish in Navajo. A bomber was "jay-sho," or buzzard in Navajo.
Words also could be spelled out using Navajo terms representing individual letters of the alphabet.
"We had to learn all of the codes, everything about airplanes, everything about ships," Morris told the St. Petersburg [Fla.] Times in 1999. "We would get released from school and study until midnight. Our instructors were all Navajos. They told us to get with it and not fool around. [They said] when you go overseas, you're going to need it."
In a 2003 interview with the Navajo Times, Morris said they were told "if you get captured by the Japanese, don't you ever tell them what you learned here."
If captured, Morris said, their instructions were simple: "Just die for your country."
During combat on Okinawa, Morris told the Veterans Day crowd in 2004, the Japanese interrupted the transmission of messages among code talkers.
"The Japanese got into our frequency to destroy our message. We finished one word at a time until we finished the message," said Morris, who served with the 22nd Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division.
The Navajo code talkers participated in every Marine assault conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.
For many years, a veil of secrecy surrounded use of the unbreakable Navajo code.
Morris told the St. Petersburg Times in 2001 that when each code talker was discharged, his commander admonished him not to speak of the work he did during the war.
"He never told my mom," Anderson said. "He never told his mom and dad either."
That changed after the role the code talkers played in the war was declassified in 1968, but official recognition came years later.
In 1992, Morris was present when the code talkers were honored at the dedication of a code talker exhibit at the Pentagon.
In 2001, he attended the ceremony in Washington when President George W. Bush awarded Congressional Gold Medals to four of the original 29 code talkers.
The next year, Morris was among 225 code talkers who received Congressional Silver Medals at Window Rock, Ariz.
About 65 code talkers are still alive today, according to Navajo Code Talkers Assn. secretary Yvonne Murphy.
"I feel really blessed for what we did in World War II," Morris told the Tulare Advance-Register in 2007.
Last Wednesday, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of Morris.
Morris was born April 19, 1926. As the eldest of four children, he tended his parents' sheep and horses on the Navajo reservation, which he once described as a place where there was "no electricity, no running water, no school."
At age 12, he was sent to a government boarding school 70 miles away, where he learned English. Morris returned to the reservation after the school was closed during the war and turned into an internment camp for Japanese Americans.
He was barely 17 in 1943 when he went to the local draft board and said he was 18 in order to obtain a draft registration card, which was required to be hired for a job.
He had been working in an Arizona ore mine for a few months when he was drafted. He credited a Navajo medicine man with keeping him safe during the war.
"He prayed a day and a half for me," Morris recalled in a 1998 interview with the Modesto Bee. "He said, 'Grandson, you will be safe, and you will come back so you can tell me all that happened.' "
After his discharge in 1946, Morris found a civilian job at the Marine supply center in Barstow, Calif., and he and his wife, Charlotte, settled in nearby Daggett. He was maintenance department supervisor at the supply center when he retired in 1984.
In addition to his daughter, Morris is survived by his wife of 61 years; two sons, Elliott and Joe Jr.; three brothers, Bobby, Johnnie and Sam; and three grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Monday at East Hills Community Church, 20660 Orange Terrace Parkway, Riverside.