Will Foster, an Elvis impersonator, sings to Navajo Code Talker Samuel Sandoval and Romona Silversmith, the wife of code talker Joe Silversmith, during a
Will Foster, an Elvis impersonator, sings to Navajo Code Talker Samuel Sandoval and Romona Silversmith, the wife of code talker Joe Silversmith, during a Christmas dinner for Navajo Code Talkers on Saturday at the Farmington Indian Center. (Jon Austria/ The Daily Times)

FARMINGTON — As Christmas approaches, local Navajo Code Talkers gathered to celebrate the season.

The code talkers and their families shared their stories during a dinner Saturday afternoon at the Farmington Indian Center.

Etta Arviso, who has worked as a volunteer advocate for veterans since 1993, started organizing the dinner right after the Shiprock Fair.

"I help all veterans and all nationalities," she said.

For Arviso, the dinner is more than just a volunteer project. Her uncle is one of the surviving code talkers.

Volunteers from the Dreamweavers 4-H group helped serve the meal and Will Foster, a Navajo Elvis impersonator, provided entertainment.

One of the code talkers in attendance was John Kinsel.

Kinsel, 92, served in the 3rd Marine Division from 1942 to 1945. During that time, he was served in Guam, New Zealand and Iwo Jima, among many other places in the Pacific.

He said he doesn't like that being in the Marines made him a fighter, but he said he likes that military officials chose his language to relay secret messages during World War II.

"It saved them and saved us," Kinsel said.

Still, Kinsel looks back on the code talkers with some regret. As he spoke in Navajo to the attendees, he told them he feels like one of the reasons the language is dying is because it was used to kill people, which is something the Navajo holy people never imagined would happen. His son, Ron Kinsel, translated for The Daily Times.

Tom Jones, 88, also served in the 3rd Marine Division from 1943 to 1945. Jones was 16 when he joined the Marines. He remembers learning more than 2,000 Navajo words, which made up the code.

After basic training, Jones and 57 other code talkers were sent on a ship to Guadalcanal, where they were based. He said it took them 18 days to reach Guadalcanal. He described when the commanders would tell them "there's a tough operation ahead of you." He said that meant an invasion.

Navajo Code Talker John Kinsel talks with his son Ronald Kinsel during a Christmas dinner for Navajo Code Talkers on Saturday at the Farmington Indian
Navajo Code Talker John Kinsel talks with his son Ronald Kinsel during a Christmas dinner for Navajo Code Talkers on Saturday at the Farmington Indian Center. (Jon Austria /The Daily Times)

At one point, during the invasion of Bougainville Island, they were in a jungle so thick he said he could only see 10 feet in front of him. He said the invasion was particularly difficult, and the Japanese used every weapon they had against them. He remembers as soon as they hit the beach, a code talker was killed.

"They had to use us -- use our language to radio to headquarters to headquarters. Regiment to regiment," Jones said.

However, that didn't keep the code talkers from fighting on the front lines and working to establish new headquarters.

Jones also remembers the invasion of Iwo Jima. He said they were told it was a big operation, but, before they got on the ship, they weren't told where they were going. They watched as other ships, a submarine, a destroyer and air support joined them.

"One guy said, 'Where are we going anyway?'" Jones recalled.

Eventually, they were told they were going to Iwo Jima, which had more fortification than the other islands.

"When you get on the beach, you can hardly believe the sand and ash," Jones said. "The island is all ash."

He said the hill was impossible to climb. As they started up, they constantly were sliding back to the bottom. He remembers seeing bodies floating in the water.

Code talkers were stationed on the submarine, battleship and destroyer, as well as being sent in to the island.

After they took Iwo Jima, their next invasion was Okinawa.

Two weeks after the nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the war ended, Jones was able to return home.

Hannah Grover covers news, arts and religion for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and hgrover@daily-times.com. Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.