The front door of Dan Akee’s home was wrapped with a wide red ribbon.
The 94-year-old Navajo Code Talker, flanked by family members and friends, snipped the ribbon and shuffled inside. His entrance marked the first time in four months he had seen the interior of a house he built with his own hands more than 60 years ago.
“This is a gift,” he told a group of family, friends and construction workers who crowded inside the still-unfurnished home February 6. “I didn’t go inside while they were working on it. I wanted to surprise myself.”
Akee is one of about a dozen surviving Code Talkers, an elite group of Marines who, during World War II, helped develop a code that confounded the enemy and turned the tide of the war. After returning to his home in Tuba City, Arizona, Akee built a 2,400-square-foot, four-bedroom brick home where he raised 12 children.
That home fell into disrepair and sat unoccupied since 2006 when the roof started leaking and Akee moved to a doublewide trailer next door. But he held onto a dream that he would once again live in his home.
When the local Navajo Veterans Affairs office got involved, that dream began coming true. Veterans Affairs partnered with Red Feather Development Group, a nonprofit organization that helps provide homes for Native Americans. Crews broke ground in November and worked furiously to renovate the home, said Mark Hall executive director of Red Feather.
They were working against the clock. Two Code Talkers – Ernest Yazhe and Alfred Peaches – died in January and Akee has had pneumonia twice since November.
“It’s important to note that we did this on an accelerated timeline,” Hall said of the renovation project. “I wanted him to be able to appreciate this house and I didn’t want him to spend another whole winter in the trailer.”
The project came with a $120,000 price tag, funded by Red Feather, Veterans Affairs and about $50,000 from private and corporate donations, Hall said. Crews replaced the roof, installed plumbing and electricity, renovated the kitchen and covered the exterior in a new coat of paint.
Hall estimated crews would put in one more week of work on the home, completing the final details. Akee is free to move in anytime, he said.
Dressed in his canary yellow Code Talkers shirt and accompanied by his wife of 66 years, Akee on Saturday toured his newly renovated home. He paused near a wood-burning stove in the living room to offer an emotional thank you to construction crews, donors and volunteer laborers.
“I was 18 years old when I volunteered with the Marine Corps,” he said. “They asked if I was Navajo, then they asked if I wanted to be part of something. I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
Akee served in three of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater, including Iwo Jima, he said, his voice choked with emotion.
“I survived, but I talked to myself,” he said. “I kept saying I want to go home.”
Because a community came together to support a hero, Akee is able to once again go home, Navajo President Russell Begaye said. Begaye was at the site in November when crews broke ground on the renovation. He helped knock out windows and remove bathroom and kitchen fixtures – and he returned Saturday to personally escort Akee through his home.
“It’s amazing how much this place has transfigured,” Begaye said. “Our biggest thanks today is to Dan for his service. This is his gift.”
Akee has nine surviving children and at least 112 grandchildren.