“Gentle, kind and humble.” That’s how Lloyd Oliver struck many people upon their first meeting with him. Oliver, one of just two of the remaining original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, answered the final reveille last week far from his birthplace of Shiprock, Arizona
Oliver, 87, died 16 March 2011 of pancreatitis in Avondale, Ariz., near where he had made his home with his second wife, Lucille.
Oliver was born April 23, 1923, into Bit’ahnii (Folded Arms Clan), born for Kinlichíi’nii (Red House Clan). His chei was Naakaii Dine’é (Mexican People Clan) and his nálí was Tódích’íi’nii (Bitter Water Clan).
He grew up in Shiprock, where he graduated from Shiprock Agricultural High School in 1941. A year later, at age 19, he enlisted in the Marines and became one of the first of the elite group later named the Navajo Code Talkers. He didn’t set out to be a hero, said Oliver’s nephew Lawrence Oliver, whose father Willard also was a code talker. “I was sitting with my dad once and asked him if he knew why Uncle Lloyd enlisted,” Lawrence said. “(Willard) said that (Lloyd’s) girlfriend was mad at him.” Willard Oliver died in 2009.
Lloyd Oliver served in the Marines until 1945, when he was discharged with the rank of corporal. More than five decades would pass before his family knew how pivotal he had been in winning the war in the Pacific.
Oliver, who preferred not to have a hearing aid, spoke audibly but his words could be difficult to understand. The Code Talkers were instructed not to discuss their roles and felt compelled to honor those orders even after the code was declassified in 1968. His military records make a single mention of “code talker.” He otherwise was listed as “communication duty,” or “communication personnel.”
Years later, his hearing remained impaired because of gun blasts and other explosives during the war. He rarely brought up his time as a Code Talker, but his eyes gleamed when holding a picture of himself in his uniform. He kept a Marine cap and a U.S. flag displayed on his bedroom walls in the home he shared with his wife on the Yavapai Apache Reservation.
Like thousands of other GIs, Oliver returned to his hometown, married and had a child. Things didn’t work out, however, and he moved to Phoenix to find work.
There he learned silver and metalsmithing, and developed a distinctive style as a jewelry maker. He supported himself selling his work through Atkinson’s Trading Post in Scottsdale, Ariz., continuing well into his 70s.
Oliver was known for being industrious and self-sufficient. His grandson, Steven Lloyd Oliver, recalls a visit the two made to New York City in 2009, where the code talkers had been invited to take part in the Veteran’s Day parade.
Oliver’s death meant that only one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers survived — Chester Nez of Albuquerque, N.M. The 87-year-old Oliver died at a hospice center in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale where he had been staying for about three weeks, his nephew, Lawrence, said Friday.
“It’s very heartbreaking to know that we are losing our Navajo Code Talkers, and especially one of the original 29 whose stories would be tremendously valuable,” said Yvonne Murphy, secretary of the Navajo Code Talkers Foundation. Hundreds of Navajos followed in the original code talkers’ footsteps, sending thousands of messages without error on Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics and other communications critical to the war’s ultimate outcome. The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific.
Navajo President Ben Shelly called Oliver a “national treasure” and ordered flags lowered across the reservation in his honor.