FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- As members of an elite group of Navajo Marines approach their 90s, they know there's little time left to tell the story about how they used their native language to confound the Japanese during World War II.
Their vision for a venue to tell those stories, including the years in which they kept their role a secret, is closer to reality. Chevron Mining Inc. recently donated 208 acres of land to the association for a museum and veterans center.
Keith Little and his fellow Marines want to preserve the Code Talkers legacy that is better known to Navajos but not as well by the rest of the country. And with the recent passing of four Code Talkers within five weeks, including one of the original 29 who helped develop the unbreakable code, there's a greater sense of urgency.
"We want to tell the story, demonstrate it, show it off," said the 85-year-old Little from Crystal, N.M., and president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association.
Chevron Mining president Fred Nelson signed over the land to the Code Talkers during a ceremony near the tribal capital of Window Rock on Friday. Some 95 percent of the workers at Chevron's McKinley Mine are Navajo, and Nelson said donating the land just off the highway made sense.
Several hundred Navajos served as Code Talkers during the war, using their language to create an unbreakable code to transmit military messages on enemy tactics, Japanese troop movements and other battlefield information. They took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, including the battles of Guadalcanal, Saipan and Iwo Jima.
After the war, Code Talkers were told to keep their work a secret and forget about what they learned. Even after their role in the war was declassified in 1968, they remained hesitant to discuss it even with their families.
Fewer than 100 Code Talkers are believed to still be alive, and just three remain of the original group.
Yvonne Murphy didn't know her father was a Code Talker until she saw him wearing a uniform when she was 16, but even then she didn't question him because that's seen as disrespectful in the Navajo culture.
"It took me a while to fully understand what it was and what they had done during the war," she said. "All those years in my childhood, we grew up not knowing. Even in the schools, they didn't teach that in history."
In recent years, the role of the Navajo code talkers has gained more exposure. In 2001, the Congressional Gold Medal was presented at a ceremony by President George W. Bush to several survivors representing the original 29 code talkers. Director John Woo's 2002 movie "Windtalkers," starring Nicolas Cage, depicted the code talkers' role in the brutal battle for Saipan.
Little and others see the museum as a place where they can tell their stories firsthand as a way to preserve their traditions, culture and language that is fading in the younger generations. They want to display World War II memorabilia and provide a place where other veterans can chat among themselves and have a cup of coffee.
The cost for the first phase of the project that will include the museum is expected to be between $20 million and $30 million. Later phases will include a veterans center, and possibly a medical clinic, commercial property to sustain the museum and a language institute.
Funding has been secured for preliminary work, and the association plans to raise the money to build the museum through the public and private sector.