Wade Dixon, of Kirtland, New Mexico, has two black and white photographs of his father, taken roughly three years apart.
In the earlier one, likely taken in 1942, a smile plays across Marine Cpl. James Dixon’s lips. In the second photograph, shot in 1945, that smile is gone. Wade Dixon, one of five children born to James Dixon in the years after World War II, knows very little of what happened in between.
“If you look at the two photos, he’s a different person,” Dixon said. “It’s like he left as a boy and came back as a man. He experienced something.”
James Dixon died in 1997, having never told his family about his service in World War II, or his association with an elite group of more than 400 Navajo Marines who changed the course of the war – and of history itself. These men helped form an unbreakable code based on their complex Native language. It confounded the Japanese in the Pacific Theater and helped the United States win the war.
Although the details are scarce, Dixon has pieced together some of his father’s story. He and his sister, Lynette Dixon Good Voice, journeyed October 5 to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia, to deliver a gold coin museum personnel have never seen: the Congressional Gold Medal presented to the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers.
The medal represents a story worth telling, museum Director Lin Ezell said as she accepted the medal on loan.
“People don’t come to the museum to see the movies or the replicas,” Ezell said. “They come here to get close to history, to see the objects we have. We’ve had very little to connect the stories of the Code Talkers to objects, until today.”
The public rarely gets to see one of these medals, Ezell said. The Marine Corps museum in San Diego has one on display, but this is a first for the Virginia location.
“There are only 29 of these medals in existence,” Ezell said. “This is the only one we’ve ever had. It’s an honor. It’s probably the only one we’ll ever have.”
Dixon learned of his father’s military service after his death at age 72.
“My mom didn’t know about him and she was closest to him,” he said at the museum October 5, during a ceremony that included a traditional Navajo blessing of the medal before it was added to the museum’s World War II exhibit.
“I remember we used to go to events, parades with my dad, and he would name the Code Talkers as they walked by,” Dixon said. “I never realized why he knew them. He was one. Now I know.”
After James Dixon’s death, his family tracked down his service records and requested his medals, which include a bronze star and a purple heart. Military records show he served in the First Marine Division and helped in the defense of Guadalcanal. The family traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2001 to accept the Congressional Gold Medal.
“I want it displayed on a national level now,” Dixon said of the medal. “I want to loan it so my dad’s story can be told on a national level and seen by people from all over the world.”
James Dixon married twice: once to a Laguna woman, and later to a Rosebud Sioux woman. He had five children.
“He died in 1997, never speaking much, if ever, of his service,” said Gretchen Winterer, assistant curator at the museum.
The Code Talkers returned home with instructions not to talk about their responsibilities in the war. The code was declassified in 1968, but little was done to commemorate their service until 2001 when the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers – and in most cases their surviving families, including Dixon – received the Congressional Gold Medal, honoring them for their unique service. Only five of the original Code Talkers were alive to receive the medals for themselves.
Only one is still living today. Chester Nez is 91.
Dixon is loaning the medal to the museum for five years. He hopes to one day have it displayed at the Code Talker museum in Window Rock, Arizona. Plans are under way for construction of that museum.
“Since we picked this up for my dad, I’ve been trying to find a location to tell his story, to make him known,” Dixon said. “People on Navajoland, we all know the stories of the Code Talkers. Other people don’t. They saved a lot of lives, and this medal is the closest thing I have to tell the story.”