Robert Yazzie, who would have turned 82 on Tuesday, died in a Nashville hospital Monday - Memorial Day - said his son, Bruce Yazzie of Hendersonville.
"One of his physical therapists said he knew how to go out with a bang. He was trying to make light of the situation, but he was telling the truth," his son said. "It's a day I won't forget."
Yazzie, who had diabetes for 35 years, had been in declining
health since suffering heart trouble a few years ago. He had
recently developed an infection in his blood stream.
He grew up on a reservation in Arizona and enlisted in the Marines at age 17, becoming part of a group of about 400 Navajos recruited to create a code for secure communications in battles with Japan.
"It was his way of doing something new," his son said. "He wanted to do something for his country."
Navajo is an extremely complex unwritten language, according to a U.S. Navy history web site. The Japanese military never cracked the code, which helped the Marines win Iwo Jima and other battles in the Pacific theater from 1942 to 1945.
"We just sent messages," Yazzie told The Tennessean newspaper in 2003. "We were sending codes on the radio, and we would just talk on the radio using my language."
After his discharge as a private first class in 1945, Yazzie became a welder. He married a woman from Gainesboro, Tenn., and moved to Nashville in the early 1950s, traveled some, then wound up back in Nashville about 35 years ago.
The code talkers had to keep their work secret long after the war they helped win, but they were honored at the Pentagon in 1992. Yazzie received a Congressional Silver Medal for Distinguished Service at a ceremony in Nashville on July 4, 2003.
"He really didn't think he deserved it," his son said. "He was one of those people who didn't look to be on a pedestal."
Along with his son, Yazzie is survived by two stepdaughters and a stepson. Funeral arrangements are pending.