Joe Vandever was born in New Mexico and drafted into the Marine Corps at 19 to serve as a Navajo Code Talker during World War II. Vandever went through basic training in Fort Wingate, New Mexico, before continuing training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California.
In October 1943, Vandever joined the 6th Marine Division, 3rd Raider Battalion. He was the translator of all incoming Navajo messages for his commanding officers. By applying the Navajo words for common English, Code Talkers could encode and transmit messages as fast as Morse code. The Japanese never deciphered this code. Throughout his service, Vandever traveled on 16 different battleships and was stationed in New Caledonia, the Samoan Islands, Bougainville, Guadalcanal, Emirau Island, Guam; Okinawa, Japan; and China.
Vandever had strong faith throughout his service. Before being drafted, a medicine man blessed him for protection for his challenging journey. When Vandever was with the 4th Marines Regiment Brigade in Guam, he saw a gray and yellow Cassin’s kingbird land in front of him. He believed the bird to be a spiritual symbol assuring him that he would return home safely thanks to the ceremonies performed in Navajo Nation.
Vandever did return home safely upon discharge on Jan. 22, 1946. He returned home to his family in Navajo Nation and, on Sept. 20, 1946, married his sweetheart Bessie, a Navajo weaver and herbalist. He returned to his family heritage and faith by becoming a Navajo medicine man. He also continued a family farm while working different jobs at an oil company, as a uranium prospector, and as a chauffeur. For Vandever, the Navajo language was compelling and he continued to advocate for younger generations to learn to speak the language for the rest of his life.
The Navajo Code Talker program remained classified until 1968 and Code Talkers were instructed not to talk about it. In the 1980s, Code Talkers started to receive recognition for their monumental service by being honored at parades. Vandever also participated in the Navajo Code Talker Day celebrations held on August 14th, the day that President Ronald Reagan declared National Navajo Code Talker Day. He also received the Congressional Silver Medal in 2001.
By 2020, Vandever was one of the few remaining Navajo Code Talkers remaining, from a group of between 375 to 420. He died on Jan. 31, 2020, at the age of 96. His wife died the year prior. They were married for 73 years. Vandever was honored by Navajo Nation leadership, Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for his incredible service to the nation.
We honor his service.
Writer: Annaleigh Cummings
Editor: Essence McPherson
Fact Checkers: Vivian Hurney, Courtney Atkins
Graphics: Sarah Kowalewski