Code Talker George Willie Sr. dies


George Willie

George Boyd Willie Sr., who passed away Tuesday at the age of 92 in his home in Leupp after a long illness, really took to heart his oath to keep the fact he was a Navajo Code Talker a secret.

According to family members, he didn’t tell them he was a Code Talker until 1997, more than 25 years after the federal government officially informed the world of their existence.

Annabelle Smallcanyon, his youngest daughter, said when they heard that he was a Code Talker and asked him about it, he said he couldn’t say anything because he took an oath when he was discharged that he wouldn’t reveal anything about their existence.

“I told him that it was all right because other Coe Talkers were talking about it and telling about their experiences,” she said.

After that, she said, her father would tell family members about his experiences as something would trigger his memory.

Born in a small Navajo community near Sawmill in either 1925 or 192, depending on whose records you believe, Willie, who is Tó Dích’iínii (Bitter Water) and born for Tábaahá (Near The Water Edge), went to the Sawmill Day School before transferring to the vocational school at Fort Wingate where students studied academics in the morning and then took farming courses in the afternoon.

His mother died when he was young and is father, who was a lumberman, remarried so he would spend much of his time being cared for by aunts and uncles. But he never lost his love and respect for his father.

Smallcanyon said her father would often tell of times that he would wait for his father at the gate of the sawmill and when he came out, he and his father would walk back to where his grandmother, who was watching him at the time, lived.

He only went to the 7th grade and like many Navajos, started trying to enlist after hearing about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on dec. 7, 1941.

“He was too young, however, to get in,” said Smallcanyon. “He had to wait until he was 17.

He finally became a Marine and Code Talker in 1943 serving as a private with the Second Marine Division, 10th Battalion. He participated in the Battle of Okinawa, delivering and receiving coded messages using the Navajo language, according to the Marine Corps.

He would later tell family members and others about what h remembered about the battle.

He began with the ropes that were placed alongside the ships so that the people on the ship could get into the water.

He recalled there was a priest there who was giving the people getting off the ship to do battle a blessing, saying that he didn’t know if they would return, but “if you don’t, you are doing this for your country.”

As he went down the makeshift ladder into the water to get to shore, he remembers being shot at by the Japanese on the shore.

When asked about the experience, he would say he remembered being surrounded by red – referring to the blood that was in the water, on the ladders and everywhere he looked.

He served as a vital communication link between the battle that was going on all around him for hose back at headquarters who wanted to now about the casualties as the battle progressed.

Steve Morgan of Veterans Motorsports, left, Navajo Code Talker George Willie and driver Mike Harmon in front of the “Treasure The Legacy – Honoring Our Navajo Code Talker” Xfinity Race Car at the NASCAR Xfinity Ticket Galaxy 200 race Nov. 12, 2017, at Phoenix Raceway.

Smallcanyon remembers her father telling her that one of his duties during the battle was keeping headquarters informed about the body count and helping tied up the dead so they could be carried easier back to headquarters.

“Every time he had 10 bodies, a helicopter would fly in and take them away,” she said.

This and other experiences he had during the war, she said, gave him a bad feeling all of his life about death, which resulted in him avoiding funerals when he could.

As he began talking about his experiences, Smallcanyon said, ordinary things that people took for granted would trigger some ind of memory about his military career.

For example, onetime he saw crackers on the table and remarked that there were times when he and his fellow Marines only had crackers to eat.

After being discharged, the effects of the war hung heavy on Willie and there was a time when he had problems with alcohol abuse, his daughter said.

But several years after the war ended, Willie was called up to take care f his grandmother who was ailing and he went back to Leupp at the request of his sister to look after her and tend her sheep.

It was while he was there that he became a husband when the mother of his soon-to-be wife, Emma Jean, heard about him and arranged for her daughter to meet him.

“It could be called an arranged marriage,” said Smallcanyon. But arranged or not, Emma, who brought with her two small children, got married, had 10 children of their own and lived together for some 60 years.

The responsibility of taking acre of his grandmother and getting married had a profound affect on him, turning him into a man who over the next 40 years had a variety of jobs, including working for the railroad and traveling all over the west, working on fencing, pipeline and water projects as an employee of the Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority and ending his work career as a janitor for the Leupp school district.

“You could say he was a jack o all trades,” said Smallcanyon.

He retired in 1994, spending time herding sheep and, for some reason, picking up stones and rocks and using them to make paths along the routes he took with his sheep herds.
In his later years, he also became involved with the Navajo Code Talker’s Association, going to meetings and taking occasional trips to promote the Marine Unit and the accomplishment of his fellow Code Talkers.

“He kept to himself but after going to his first meeting with the Navajo Code Talkers, he was able to open up. I was then able to talk with him about it,” Smallcanyon said. “Later on as people would come up to shake his hand, he would stand tall and feel proud about his service as a Code Talker.”

As a person, Willie was described as a soft spoken father (Smallcanyon said she was never spanked), a man who was always neat in appearance even when he was wearing his janitor’s outfit and a tenor who loved to sing gospel tunes.

As he grew older, Willie developed dementia which took a toll on his health as it severely affected his sleep. Smallcanyon said Willie was released from the hospital on Dec. 4 to be sent home for hospice care.

“The dementia brought him down a lot,” she said.

Willie is survived by his wife Emma Jean and five of his ten children.

“I remember George Willie as a kind father and grandfather who held his service with pride and dignity,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said. “Like many of our Code Talkers, Willie enlisted into the military at a young age and went on to courageously defend our freedom and liberty as the United States of America.”

Willie’s funeral service is planned for Monday, Dec. 11 at the Leupp Presbyterian Church at 10 a.m. Viewing will be held at 9 a.m. Greers Mortuary in Winslow is handing burial arrangements. Willie’s burial services will be held at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Park at Camp Navajo in Bellemont, Ariz.

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About Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.