One of the last living Navajo code talkers from World War II ― U.S. Marines who used the Navajo language to transmit secret tactical messages to outwit the Japanese ― has died.
David Patterson Sr. died on Sunday in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, at the age of 94 from pneumonia and complications from a fall. “He was brave until the very end, but was just not strong enough to overcome this battle,” his son Pat Patterson wrote.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye called Patterson a “national treasure.”
“Our nation is forever indebted to these WWII heroes,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote in a tweet on Monday.
Patterson was among roughly 400 Navajo speakers who served as code talkers during the war. CIA story archives recount some initial skepticism of whether the code talkers would be useful to the Marines. But they soon proved their mettle.
From the archives:
A skeptical lieutenant decided to test their skills and the code before trusting them to deliver actual combat messages.
The Code Talkers successfully translated, transmitted and re-translated a test message in two and a half minutes. Without using the Navajo code, it could take hours for a soldier to complete the same task.
From then on, the Code Talkers were used in every major operation involving the Marines in the Pacific theater. Their primary job was to transmit tactical information over telephone and radio.
The code talkers’ contribution during the invasion of Iwo Jima in 1945 was invaluable. The code talkers sent more than 800 messages during the battle, according to the CIA. “All of the messages were transmitted without error.”
Patterson, who joined the Marines in 1943, served in Iwo Jima, reported the Farmington Daily Times. He also served in the Marshall Islands and Saipan during the war.
Patterson’s children said their father, who was bestowed a Congressional Silver Medal in 2001, never talked much about his wartime years ― but was always proud of his code talker service.
“He attended as many code talker events as he could,” his son Pat Patterson told The Associated Press. “It was only when his health started to decline that he didn’t attend as many.”
After being honorably discharged from the Marines in 1945, Patterson worked as a social worker and coached Little League. After his retirement in the late 1980s, he volunteered as a foster grandparent.
On a GoFundMe donation page for his dad’s funeral, Pat Patterson said his father was also a devoted Catholic who loved bingo, baseball (he was a Los Angeles Dodgers fan) and an “avid bowler, a passion which he enjoyed doing until the very end.”
Patterson is survived by six children, reported AP. Services are scheduled for Thursday in Shiprock, New Mexico.
The Arizona Republic reported in 2016 that about a dozen Navajo WWII code talkers were still living.