Navajo Code Talker Willard V. Oliver passes on

Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 15, 2009

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Code Talker Willard V. Oliver

For the second time this week, flags on the Navajo Nation are being flown at half-mast to honor the passing of a soldier.

Navajo Code Talker Willard Varnell Oliver, 88, of Lukachukai, Ariz., died Wednesday.

President Joe Shirley Jr. ordered flags at half-staff from Oct. 15 through Oct. 19 in honor of Oliver.

Shirley had ordered flags at half-mast from Oct. 14 to 17 in honor of U.S. Army Sgt. Kenneth Westbrook who died Oct. 7 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Oliver died at the Northern Arizona Veterans Administration Health Care System Hospital in Prescott, Ariz.

He had been in declining health for the past two years, said his son Lawrence Oliver, executive director of the Navajo Nation's Division of Human Resources, according to a press release from the president's office.

He was proud to be a code talker and had long been active in the Navajo Code Talkers Association, according to the press release.

Oliver grew up between Shiprock and Farmington and graduated from the Shiprock Agricultural High School in 1940.

He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on March 23, 1943, and served in the South Pacific with the 2nd Marine Division. He was honorably discharged on Dec. 11, 1945.

"I had an SCR 300 radio pack strapped to my back along with a carbine semi-automatic over my right shoulder," Oliver told his son Lawrence in 2007 in recollecting his experiences. "While we were trying to get ashore (at Tarawa in 1943), the beach water was completely red with blood.

"I kept going down underwater to avoid the machine gun spray but at the same time I had to try and keep the radio dry as much as I can," he said.

In the fall of 1944, Mr. Oliver was wounded during the battle of Saipan.

"As I began moving out of a fox hole, just right then an artillery shell landed right in front of the soldiers nearby, knocking them over," he said. "At the same instant, one landed about 10 or 15 feet away from me. Next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground and had to get myself into a nearby fox hole quickly. I guess I was wounded badly."

He was wounded on his left thigh and carried a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder for the rest of his life.

He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, although lost much of his hearing in his left ear from the artillery explosion that wounded him.

Following the battle of Okinawa, Oliver was with the first occupational force to arrive at Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 after the U.S. had dropped the atomic bomb.

"We found that everything was flattened, twisted metal everywhere," he said. "We were told to be very careful as we advanced throughout the area."

After World War II, Oliver worked for the Santa Fe and Union Pacific Railroads. Later he became an ambulance driver and a police officer in Fort Defiance.

He was also a construction worker, carpenter, and helped build a gas pipeline on the Navajo Nation.    Willard Oliver's brother, Lloyd Oliver, is one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. Willard accompanied Lloyd to Washington, D.C., when Lloyd and other code talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush on July 26, 2001.

On Nov. 24, 2001, Willard Oliver was awarded the Congressional Silver Medal in Window Rock.

"I did not realize that until the code talkers were recognized that all the victories back during the war came about because of our Diné language," he said.

"Sometimes I think about it," he said. "Why did the government want to use our language when throughout BIA school we would get our mouth washed out with soap when they caught us speaking Navajo?

"I am proud to be a code talker," he said. "And I know we counted for something great, and that we fought to maintain our freedom and for our sacred land."

Willard Oliver is survived by his wife, Nellie Oliver of Lukachukai; his daughters Pearl Platero of Many Farms, Ariz., Brenda Oliver of North Hills, Calif., Sandra Oliver of Fort Defiance, Melinda Oliver and Olivia Whitethorne of Shonto, Ariz., Regina Oliver of Lukachukai, and Gloria McLane of Houck, Ariz.; and his sons Varnell Oliver of Lukachukai, Virgil Oliver of Woodbridge, Va., and Lawrence Oliver of St. Michaels, Ariz.

Willard Oliver's clans were Bit'ahnii (Folded Arms People), born for Kinlichii'nii (Red House People), and his nalis were Todich'ii'nii (Bitter Water) and Naakaii Diné (Mexican Clan).

His funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the St. Isabelle Catholic Church in Lukachukai. Burial will be at the church cemetery. A reception will follow at the Lukachukai Chapter House.

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