John “Junior” Willie, Jr., a Native American from the Navajo Tribe, was born April 21, 1920, in Coconino, Shonto, Navajo County, Arizona, to John and Louise Willie. Neither parent had attended school. John, Sr. was a sheep herder and Louise was a weaver of rugs. Both were also born on the Indian reservation. Shonto is in the heart of a Navajo Indian Reservation. He attended the Indian School at Luepp and finished eighth grade in 1937. In 1940, he was living with his grandfather, who was a manager of a farm. He worked for the Civilian Conservation Corp, Indian Division, prior to enlisting in the Marine Corps. The Indian CCC was overshadowed by the much larger regular CCC but was still a landmark program on federally recognized reservations during the 1930s. It brought material aid and conservation efforts to their many land resources and employed thousands of Native Americans.
He and 28 other men from the reservation were selected for the Navajo code talker project. On May 4, 1942, at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, they were sworn into the Marine Corps. Just 23 days later, John’s father and Keh Shepherd lost a baby girl at just 12 days old from pneumonia lobular due to exposure and neglect. She didn’t even have a name.
The new Marines attended boot camp in San Diego and became Platoon 383, the first all-Indian, all-Navajo platoon in Marine Corps history. They graduated on June 27, 1942.
The Marines were then sent to Camp Elliott where they trained in communications and created the Navajo code that would be used during WWII to secretly pass messages during combat. Just three months later, they had completed their assignment and were assigned to their combat units, with John being assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division. The 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines participated in Guadalcanal, the Southern Solomons, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa. These battles were some of the most hard-fought and ruthless fights that the Marines suffered during the Pacific Campaign.
During the war, more than 400 Navajos participated in the Code Talker program. The Code Talkers were used in every major operation involving the Marines in the Pacific theater, with their primary job being transmitting tactical information over radio and telephone.
The Navajo language was not the first Native American language to be used as a code, however, because the Japanese had studied many native languages, Navajo was one of the few that were viable. The Navajo language has no written alphabet and pitches can change meanings of words. The difficulty level of the language combined with a coded word bank allowed many Navajo Code Talkers to transmit naval and artillery bombardments to protect other Marines.
John was discharged from the Marine Corps on September 29, 1945. He married Mildred Begay in October in Coconino County, Arizona, and moved to Chicago, Illinois, and had three daughters. Despite what many Navajo had sacrificed for the U.S., when they returned home they still did not have the right to vote. John was unable to share his special work with the Code Talkers because it was classified until 1968.
The Navajo Code Talkers were finally recognized for their service and awarded medals to honor their sacrifice. In 2001, John was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which had been signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000. On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented the four surviving Code Talkers with their medals in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
John passed away July 20, 1962, in Chicago, at the age of 42, after an illness. John Willie, Jr. can be found at Plot L-328 in Rock Island National Cemetery.
These are the original Code Talkers:
Charlie Y. Begay
Roy L. Begay
Samuel H. Begay
John Ashi Benally
Wilsie H. Bitsie
Cosey S. Brown
John Brown, Jr.
Eugene R. Crawford
Lowell S. Damon
George H. Dennison
Carl N. Gorman
Oscar B. Ilthma
Alan Dale June
Johnny R. Manuelito
Frank Denny Pete
Nelson S. Thompson
William Dean Wilson
First 29 Navajo U.S. Marine Corps code-talker recruits being sworn in at Fort Wingate, NM.