Tom Jones Jr., an 89-year-old Navajo Code Talker, died at San Juan Regional Medical Center of pneumonia and other medical conditions last week.
On Nov. 26, 1943, Jones was inducted into the U.S. Marine Corps 3rd Division, Unit 297. He served as a messenger with the Navajo Code Talkers 767 and the Navajo Code Talkers 642 platoons based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
During World War II, the Code Talkers used the Navajo language to create an impenetrable code that helped the Marines in every assault mounted in the Pacific between 1942 and 1945. Those battles were fought in places with names that include Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, bitter struggles that defined the Pacific theater.
According to a Naval History and Heritage Command account, "At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, 'Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.' Connor had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. Those six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error."
Code Talkers served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, according to the Naval history.
"Praise for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war," the history says.
It was Philip Johnston, a missionary's son fluent in the language who first suggested creating the code, according to the Naval history.
Johnston was aware that Choctaw was used in World War I for the same purpose, according to the history, and thought the fact that Navajo was "an unwritten language of extreme complexity" made it perfect for creating an "undecipherable" code.
The history quotes one estimate that fewer than "30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language at the outbreak of World War II."
Because the code worked so well, the military protected its secret long after the war was over. It wasn't until Sept. 17, 1992, that the Code Talkers were officially honored for their contribution during a ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
And, the history states, the Code Talker exhibit is now a "regular stop on the Pentagon tour."
The Code Talkers were among many men who sacrificed — too many giving their lives — during World War II. Most of those who came home have been loathe to relive that time, particularly the chaos and violence of combat, and they don't talk about it.
And fewer and fewer of those World War II veterans are around to relate the history of a conflict that consumed most of the world. In the meantime, we have created yet another generation of combat veterans, and those memories of a distant war are beginning to fade.
We take this opportunity to recount some of that history and context in the hopes we'll never forget. If there is one thing that might help us avoid the human failing of continually repeating history, it will be remembering the experiences of people like Tom Jones Jr.