Though “tight-lipped” about his World War II experiences, Navajo code talker John Brown Jr. never forgot those he saw die and wore his uniform proudly to honor them, family members say.
Brown, 87, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and one of the original 29 Navajo Indians recruited to devise a secret code the Japanese couldn’t decipher, died in his home May 20.
“It was not long after he graduated from the Albuquerque Indian School that he enlisted in the military,” said Frank Brown, his son. “On the same day, he took the oath, physical exam and headed to boot camp at Camp Pendleton in California.”
On their first night, the young recruits also learned their mission.
“After two hours of sleeping his first night at Camp Pendleton, a drill sergeant came in and told them to hit the deck,” Frank said. “Then, they were informed they were there for a special purpose – to devise a secret code in their language.”
Photo courtesy Francine Brown Francine Brown, granddaughter, and John Brown Jr. in 2008 at the Navajo Code Talkers Day on the Navajo Nation.
Born Dec. 24, 1921, Brown attended the Chinle Boarding School and graduated from the Albuquerque Indian School in 1940. He was about 19 years old when World War II broke out, his son said.
“The original 29 wrote the code, and it was never broken,” Frank said. “At some point in time on the battlefield, they had some skeptics who wanted to test the code talkers’ code against their best cryptographers. Each time the Navajo were able to get their code across without any mistakes and much faster than the cryptographers.”
Though Brown rarely talked about his experiences, he would tell war stories but never anything specific about his work or the code talkers, his son said.
“He did tell us war stories from time to time, mostly for history lessons. I eventually had to do my own reading and research, so I could find out more about what it was about.”
Through his reading, Frank learned that his dad played a major part in the war and served in four major battles at Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian and Guadalcanal.
Brown’s strength also inspired his grandchildren. In an e-mail, Brown’s granddaughter, Francine Brown recalled how she sought her grandfather’s guidance when she became lonely while in Alaska.
“When he’d talk about the war, he was so descriptive about the loud sounds of bombs probably and what not, then how fast he had to eat and at times never ate, and how he and others could not speak of why and how they were doing during their service to their family and spouses. It wasn’t just for him ... it was for the people he has seen get killed during the war and who had passed on during the years.”
In addition to serving in the Marine Corps, Brown trained as a welder, became a journeyman, master carpenter and cabinetmaker. In 1962, Brown became a member of the Navajo Tribal Council, representing the Crystal, N.M., community until 1982. Afterward, he served three terms as Crystal House chapter president. Brown retired from the Navajo Nation social services as a traditional counselor in 2001.
Brown’s funeral was held May 26 in Chinle, N.M., at the Chinle Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in a special ceremony with military honors performed by an Albuquerque Marine Corps unit.
“It was a beautiful funeral with complete military honors,” Frank said. “Of course, we all miss him, but we know that he’s gone. It’s one of those things; it’s like losing a precious jewel. If you think about it all the time, it keeps hurting. Somewhere in between, you just have to let it go. We have lots of stories, pictures and mementos to remember him by, and we still have mom.”
Flags on the Navajo Nation were flown at half-staff from May 21 until Brown’s funeral at the request of Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr.
Photo courtesy Brown family A U.S. Marine hands the flag to Loncie Polacca Brown, John Brown Jr.'s wife.
Shirley said Brown was “one of the Navajo Nation’s great warriors.”
“For so long, these brave men were the true unsung heroes of World War II, shielding their valiant accomplishments not only from the world but from their own families,” Shirley said of the code talkers. “The recognition and acknowledgment of their great feats came to them late in life but, for most, not too late. These heroes among us are now a very precious few, and we, as a nation, mourn their loss. We offer our deepest condolences to the family of Mr. John Brown Jr.”
In 2001, 56 years after WWII, Brown and four of the remaining original code talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush. U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico wrote the legislation that granted the medal to the original 29 code talkers and was present at the ceremony where he
“Mr. Brown served our country bravely and with distinction, and for too long his service went unrecognized. It was an honor for me to meet him, and his fellow code talkers, when they traveled to Washington to receive their Congressional gold medals.”
John Brown Jr. was the son of the late Nonabah Begay, who passed away at age 102 two years ago, and the late John Brown. He is survived by his wife Loncie Polacca Brown and his children Dorothy Whilden, Preston Brown, Everett Brown, Virgil Brown and Frank Brown. He was predeceased by his children Dale Brown and Ruth Ann McComb.