Lloyd Oliver perfected his sniper skills shooting prairie dogs as a boy on the reservation. But it was his native tongue as a Navajo that made him a war hero.
Now 87, and long deaf from years of exposure to enemy fire, Oliver helped develop the secret, encrypted language that was used by the Navajo code talkers, an elite unit of the U.S. Marines who helped defeat the Japanese in World War II.
Only about 50 of the 400 men are still alive today, mostly living on the Navajo Nation reservation that straddles Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Their average age is 84.
In red Garrison caps and gold-colored uniform shirts dotted with medals and bolo ties of indigenous turquoise, 13 of them reunited this week on what may be their last mission: to raise $50 million for a museum dedicated to preserving their language and their legacy.
Some feisty and others in wheelchairs, the veterans are participating for the first time today in the nation's largest Veterans Day Parade, in New York City.
Oliver, now frail but retaining his sense of humor, joined the U.S. Marines at 19 because "my girlfriend was mad, I had to get away."
But he would soon be part of the "original 29" who developed the code that proved to be the only one ever unbreakable by enemy forces.
"He started from scratch every day," said Stephen Lloyd Oliver, 27, who's his grandfather's translator. "The code was inspired by the people in his life."
They transmitted messages verbally by radio, one Navajo speaker to another, in what was the most successful in military history.
After the war, the code talkers returned to a country that did not recognize Navajos' voting rights -- that would happen decades later -- and were not allowed to speak about their covert wartime contributions.
Native Americans were recognized as citizens in 1924, but faced legal barriers. The vote was secured in 1948 in Arizona, but it wasn't until the Voting Rights Act of 1970 that most Native Americans in that state could vote.
Code Talkers Silenced Until 1968
The secret mission of the code talkers was classified until 1968 out of fears that the code might compromise national security long after the war.
"He accepted it out of respect for his country," said Oliver's grandson, who works at the reservation casino. "He was very humble. I am proud of what he did for this country."
Oliver returned to work as a silversmith after the war and kept his word.
Stephen Lloyd Oliver only learned about his grandfather's heroism in 2001, when President George W. Bush publicly recognized the code talkers.
Because these veterans served in the front lines, always in the line of fire, Congress approved a special gold medal.
Keith Little, who today runs a family ranch on the reservation in Crystal, N.M., signed up for the Marines at 17 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
"I wanted to retaliate for what the Japanese did," said Little, now 85, and president of the Navajo code talkers association, who says he left the reservation on foot until he reached paved roads and hitchhiked to the nearest recruiting station.
"When I went into the Marines, I couldn't vote," he said. "I had no rights at all on the federal reservation."
But he, like others, felt a duty to "protect the mother homeland."
The Marines were looking for scouts and his skills served him well. Little was at Iwo Jima for six days in 1945 and remembers crouching in a bomb crater amid heavy fire.
"According to intelligence reports, it was a small island and we would have it in our hands in eight days," he said. "It took 36 days."
The Japanese had expert English translators and were intercepting U.S. military communications at an alarming rate. But that changed with the Navajo code talkers.
At Iwo Jima, Little and his fellow code talkers worked around the clock, sending and receiving more than 800 messages, not one deciphered by the enemy.
The code talkers had a battlefield vocabulary and each word was given a coded Navajo name to convey on tactics, troop movements, orders and other vital communications, not knowing how it played into the larger strategy.
Code Talkers Patriotic, Loyal to Homeland
When Little returned home after the war, he went on to college and taught school, then later worked as a sawmill logging manager, not fully appreciating the impact of his code-talking contributions.
"I was awed by what he did, using the language as a weapon to save the whole world, and they have the satisfaction it was never broken," said his wife, Nelli, who married Little in 1972 after his first wife died. "We also wanted our land to be free and so, in that way, he was also patriotic."
Little knows firsthand that "freedoms don't come for free," and part of the code talkers' legacy is preserving the legacy of Navajo ingenuity and courage.
Many of the veterans came from humble backgrounds, the sons of farmers and sheepherders, many of whom spoke halting English but were fluent in their traditional language.
Now 87, and retired from the Union Pacific Railroad, Kee Etsicitty left the poverty of the reservation to get a better education and "open the door to the white man's world."
"I was 17 or 18 at the time," he told ABCNews.com. "We were a bunch of kids who got together and said, 'Let's go join up with our friends.
"They only took people who were 21. My grandmother told me to lie, make it sweet and juicy."
Etsicitty did, and in 1943, he started boot camp at Fort Pendleton in San Diego. His English was spotty, but he was a "full-blooded" Navajo, with just the right pronunciation to join 80 others at "code-talking school."
"It came naturally to me," he said.
"I was from a poor family and had been pushed around in a government school and had never been off the reservation," said Etsicitty. "I didn't know I would be part of history."
Now, those who are left are in New York City, visiting Ground Zero and World War II's battleship USS Intrepid, and are building support for a new museum to preserve their contributions for future generations.
The Navajo Code Talkers Museum & Veterans Center Project will open in 2012 near the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Ariz., on 208 acres of land donated by Chevron Mining Inc.
Etsicitty, eagerly awaiting a photo shoot Tuesday at HBO and then a tribute from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hoped to be able to tell his own story "until I'm 100."
Standing close to his father, Curtis Etsicitty -- a horse-roping trainer in a 10-gallon cowboy hat -- beamed with pride.
"There'll never be anyone like him again," he said.