Code talker, silversmith Lloyd Oliver left his mark history
By Jan-Mikael Patterson
KOMATKE, Ariz., March 24, 2011
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.
Oliver, 88, died March 16 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.
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.
They were staying in a hotel and Oliver ordered soup from room service.
"The maid who brought the soup told him she would be back for the dishes," Steven said. "When he got done he took the bowl and silverware and washed it and placed it back on the tray before the maid came up and got it.
"If he was capable of doing things on his own he would," Steven said. "He was always doing something."
Steven, like the rest of Oliver's family, knew nothing of the code talkers until their work was declassified and they were publicly recognized by then-President George W. Bush in 2001.
As a member of the original 29, Oliver was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. (The later code talkers - more than 300 in all - received the Congressional Silver Medal.)
That's when family members started to learn about his participation in World War II as a code talker, scout and sniper.
"I was amazed," Steven said. "He never talked about his service until the code was declassified. I started to learn what the code talkers were all about and learn the importance of what they did.
"For myself, and for several of my cousins, there was a sense of bitterness and anger on how it took so long for them to get the recognition they deserved," he said. "But Lloyd said, 'Don't be angry about it. If anyone should be angry about it, I should. But I'm not. I agreed.'"
It was not until the 2009 Veteran's Day parade that Oliver truly felt the country's appreciation, said his grandson. There, flanked by the huge crowds along New York's famed Fifth Avenue, "That's when he finally felt appreciated for what the code talkers did," Steven said.
"Fame and fortune is not what Lloyd was about," he said. "He was humble in everything. He always said, 'the more humble you are, the more beautiful you are ... and don't be lazy.'"
Steven chuckled, recalling the example set by his grandfather.
"He was always busy doing something. He would wake up at 5 in the morning and start raking the yard, doing things that he can do," Steven said. "When he was in his 70s and 80s, he would ride his bicycle around Phoenix. He was very active."
Memorial services for Lloyd Oliver took place last Saturday at the Gila Crossing Presbyterian Church, southeast of Komatke, Ariz., where a standing-room-only audience gathered to pay their final respects.
As the service drew to a close, fellow code talker and friend Joe Kellwood took the microphone in hand and sang the Marine hymn in Navajo, followed by a final salute to his comrade: "Semper Fi."
Oliver was laid to rest on the Gila River Indian Reservation, as was his wish. Survivors include his wife; five children and six stepchildren; 19 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.
With Oliver's passing, just one member of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers remains, Chester Nez of Albuquerque.