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Aspiring pilot, recruited to be Navajo Code Talker, dies

Apr. 16, 2014 - 12:26PM   |  
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A Navajo man who aspired to be a pilot but was recruited to become a Code Talker during World War II has died.

Michael Smith says his father, Samuel “Jesse” Smith Sr., died Monday night in Albuquerque after a bout with pneumonia. He was 88.

The elder Smith enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps to become a pilot “to get revenge” on the Japanese for bombing Pearl Harbor, Michael Smith said. But his father’s plan was derailed because he didn’t have a high school diploma. Instead, he became one of hundreds of Navajos who used a code based on their native language to confound the Japanese and help win the war.

Samuel Smith later worked in law enforcement for the Navajo Nation and for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also served as director of transportation and water resources for the tribe.

Smith and his late wife, who was from the Acoma Pueblo, had nine children among what Michael Smith estimated were 150 direct descendants.

It was his father’s service as a Navajo Code Talker that inspired Michael Smith to join the Marines and become part of a commemorative all-Navajo platoon.

“To see his face when I graduated from boot camp and to see how proud he was, to me, that’s what I felt was me paying my respects to him,” Michael Smith told The Associated Press.

Michael Smith said he also is grateful for the time his father spent teaching him how to shoot a rifle, work on cars and how to be a father to his own children. The elder Smith never did fly planes, his son said.

Navajo President Ben Shelly has ordered flags lowered across the reservation through Friday.

Funeral arrangements for Smith are pending.

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