Navajo Code Talkers Launch Final Mission

"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 "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.

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