Click here for our feature story on the history of American Indian code talkers in the military. Click here for our story of 90-year-old veteran Chester Nez, who keeps alive the story of Navajo code talkers. Indian country lost one of the few remaining World War II Navajo code talkers when Joe Morris Sr., 85, passed away in Riverside, California on July 17. Morris, Navajo, spent most of his adult life in Daggett, California, where he had a civilian job at the nearby military base, and he raised his daughter and two sons without ever giving up his heroic secret. It wasn’t until 1968, when the military declassified the Navajo code-talker mission that he was able to tell his wife and family about what he had done in World War II.
Born in 1926 on the Navajo Nation Reservation at Indian Wells, Arizona, Morris had a harsh early life on the reservation. With no electricity or running water in the family’s hogan, Morris, his three brothers and their sister slept on a dirt floor with sheepskins for warmth and comfort. At the age of 12 he started his only formal schooling, from a residential school 70 miles from the reservation. Two years later his education came to an abrupt end when the school was converted into an internment camp after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As the oldest of his siblings, Morris was responsible for tending the family’s horses and sheep. According to his daughter, Colleen Anderson, Morris’s grandfather would wake him up very early every morning and tell him to care for the horses, which required running three or four miles. He would also tell Morris to wash himself in the snow because it would make him strong. Anderson says her father used to laugh and say his grandfather was like a drill sergeant. Morris decided he wanted to do something other than tend sheep for the rest of his life, so when he received his draft registration card, he put down that he was 18 years old, even though he was just 17. He was drafted into the Marine Corps a few months later, in 1944, completed basic training and was then assigned to the Navajo Communications School at Camp Pendleton in California. After spending five months learning the Navajo code, he was ready for combat—he spent two years with the 6th Marine Division 22nd Regiment in Guam, on Guadalcanal, Saipan, Okinawa and in Tingstao, China. He was honorably discharged as a corporal in 1946. Many years later, after the release of the movie Windtalkers in 2002, in which two U.S. Marines in World War II are assigned to protect Navajo code talkers, Morris was often asked to speak at elementary and high schools, colleges, museums and military organizations. Anderson says her father was concerned that not enough people knew of the vital role code talkers played in the war and he relished any chance to share his story. Morris leaves behind his wife of more than 60 years, Charlotte, three children and three grandchildren. Anderson says Morris’s children would like him to be remembered as a humble man, a quiet person and a good family man who gave his children a wonderful childhood.