FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2007 photo, Keith Little, a Navajo code talker during World War II, speaks at Cleveland State University. The Navajo Code Talkers Association says Little died Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 at a Fort Defiance, Ariz., hospital. He was 87. (AP Photo/The Plain Dealer, Gus Chan)
Updated: February 7, 2012 8:33AM
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Keith Little envisioned a place that would house the stories of the Navajo Code Talkers and where people could learn more about the famed World War II group who used their native language as a weapon.
His family now hopes to carry out his dream of a museum near the Arizona-New Mexico border that also will hold wartime memorabilia and serve as haven for veterans. Little, one of the most recognizable of the remaining Code Talkers, died of melanoma Tuesday night at a Fort Defiance hospital, said his wife, Nellie. He was 87.
Little was 17 when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, becoming one of hundreds of Navajos trained as Code Talkers. They used a code developed by 29 tribal members that was based on the then-unwritten Navajo language. Their code helped confound the Japanese and win the war.
“My motivation was to fight the enemy with a gun or whatever,” Little told The Associated Press in a July 2009 interview. “When I went into the Marine Corps ... I knew nothing about the Navajo code. It was really astonishing to me to get to Camp Pendleton and there were a bunch of Navajos there, and they were working with a Navajo code.”
Little, the longtime president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association until his death, traveled the country seeking funding for the museum and veterans center that is expected to cost nearly $43 million. He preached about the preservation of Navajo traditions, culture and the language that the federal government tried to eradicate before he and others were called on to use it during the war.
It was a story he never tired of telling, association secretary Yvonne Murphy said.
“That was his life. That was the drive behind him,” Murphy said Wednesday. “It didn’t matter where he was. If there were people who came and wanted to sit and talk with him, he would share with them.”
Nellie Little said her husband hoped the museum would be open by 2014 at its proposed location just outside the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock. But she said more money is needed.
She is asking people to send museum donations rather than flowers for his memorial.
Keith Little’s health had been deteriorating over the past year, as he went in and out of hospitals between speaking engagements and appearances in parades — the last time in New York in November for Veterans Day, the association said. When he wasn’t traveling, he was tending to his family’s ranch in Crystal, N.M.
A video on the association’s website features Keith Little speaking about the importance of the unbreakable code. Fellow platoon members referred to the Navajos as “walking secret codes,” with each message having to be memorized and destroyed after it was sent or received, Keith Little says.
“That is something that in itself was marvelous,” he said in the AP interview. “It was so proficient and safe.”
A public memorial is planned for Friday in Window Rock, with funeral services scheduled Saturday in nearby Fort Defiance. Navajo President Ben Shelly has ordered flags lowered across the reservation from Thursday through Sunday in Keith Little’s honor.