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Navajo Code Talker dies at 96; less than a handful remain

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)

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) — 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 in Haystack, New Mexico, 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.

Vandever was among hundreds of Navajos who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, transmitting messages using a code based on the Navajo language. The code developed by an original group of 29 Navajos was never broken.

Vandever’s death leaves less than a handful of Navajo Code Talkers still alive.

Vandever enlisted in the Marines in Santa Fe in March 1943 and was honorably discharged in January 1946. He worked multiple jobs after the war, including for an oil company and as a mining prospector, and stressed the importance of the Navajo language. He also was a medicine man.

Vandever is survived by a sister, several children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He had one great-great-grandchild.

Vandever’s wife of 73 years, Bessie, died last September.

He will be buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Arrangements are pending.

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