WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — The men who served as Navajo Code Talkers during World War II were celebrated for their service and sacrifice on Thursday during this year's National Navajo Code Talkers Day.
Approximately 400 Navajo men serving in the U.S. Marines Corps were trained to use the Navajo language to communicate military messages during the Pacific battles of World War II.
About 20 code talkers, along with family members of those who are deceased, attended an event on Thursday at Veterans Memorial Park in Window Rock, Ariz. They listened to speeches honoring their service and their place in history while being attended to by members of the Young Marines of the Marine Corps League.
"I don't think any of you, when you signed up to be a code talker, imagined yourself one day being a hero," said Maj. Gen. William T. Collins, who is the commanding general of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing headquartered in New Orleans.
President Ronald Reagan designated Aug. 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day in a proclamation he signed in July 1982. This summer, members of the Arizona House and Senate unanimously passed a bill establishing the day as Navajo Code Talkers Day in the state.
Arizona Sen. Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado, sponsored the bill, which was signed in July by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
"We will forever remember the legacy of these men, who served our Navajo people, who served our country," Begay said at Thursday's event. "They also shared a piece of our culture, a piece of our identity, a piece of our language. It is important for us to remember that."
While the majority of the event focused on the code talkers in attendance, time was also devoted to naming those who have passed away since last year's event. Those individuals are Edward B. Anderson Jr., Sidney Bedoni, Lee Begay, Wilfred Billey, Arthur J. Hubbard, Tom Jones Jr., Chester Nez and Samuel "Jesse" Smith Sr.
Earlier in the day, the Navajo Nation Museum welcomed home the uniform that belonged to late Navajo Code Talker George H. Kirk Sr., who died in Flagstaff, Ariz., in October 1999.
Joan Gilmore, one of Kirk's daughters, said the family spent 15 years searching for her father's military items.
"We want to have our family bring the legacy of the code talkers to the future generations," Gilmore said, as she stood near her father's uniform housed inside a glass case.
In January, the uniform and other items appeared for auction on the Craig Gottlieb Military Antiques website, according to a press release from the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President.
The online auction house's owner, Craig Gottlieb, acquired the uniform after it was found in a storage unit that went up for auction following Kirk's death.
Gottlieb, who spoke at the presentation, said the uniform is a way to connect to the past.
"Today, I play a small role in returning an object I came to realize is sacred to the Navajo," he said.
The uniform was returned after a joint effort was made by Kirk's family and concerned community members to retrieve it and after Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly sent a letter to Gottlieb explaining the importance of its return to the tribe.
"We knew it had to be brought home," Shelly said.
The museum will display the uniform, as well as a piece of donated radio equipment used by the code talkers.
"All our special things, no matter where they're at, they make their way back home," museum director Manuelito Wheeler said.