Navajo code talker from Carson City dies

Audrey Steinkamp didn't know a lot about her grandfather's heroics during World War II, but she did know he loved her.

Her grandfather, Karl Kee Crawford, a Navajo code talker, died Sunday at Carson Convalescent Home. He was 87.

Steinkamp, a nurse from Phoenix, visited Crawford earlier in June in Carson City and sensed that his battle with Parkinson's disease was near its end.

"I came up here for my mother's 50th birthday party to surprise him," the 25-year-old said. ""It was good because when he sees you walking up, he has that cute little wave, and that smile in his eyes that would sparkle every time.

"I just kind of wanted to spend as much time with him as I could. I gave him a big hug and a big kiss."

Crawford was born April 12, 1918, in Ganado, Ariz. At 24, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He was working in the mess hall one day at the Camp Elliot boot camp in San Diego when an officer realized he was Navajo.

"My name got called out," Crawford recalled for a Nevada Appeal news story three years ago. "I'm thinking, 'What the heck have I done now?'"

Crawford, a full-blooded Navajo, was chosen to learn the Navajo secret military code. More than 500 Navajos served in the Marines during World War II, and about 80 percent of them were trained as code talkers.

Like the Choctaw language used in World War I to confuse enemies, the Navajo language was scrambled and successfully used in World War II to prevent the Japanese from deciphering messages.

The 29 original code talkers were sworn to secrecy, as were those who came after, like Crawford. The code was declassified in 1968.

As a member of the Fourth Marine Corps Division, 3rd battalion, 7th regiment, Crawford served in Cape Gloucester, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Peleliu and the Ryukyu Islands. He was honorably discharged in 1946.

His children - Nona Hicks, Wanda Doran, Daryl Crawford and Jeannie Claussen - all live in Carson City.

Crawford had 16 grandchildren, the youngest a girl of 4 months. He was recognized with the Congressional Silver Medal about three years ago for his service as a code talker.

The front of the medal depicts two code talkers relaying a message. Along the top is the inscription "Navajo Code Talkers." The back features the Marine Corps emblem with "WWII" at the top. At the bottom are several Navajo words that translate to "The Navajo language was used to defeat the enemy."

Hicks said her father was diagnosed in 1998 with Parkinson's disease.

"Yes, (all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren) were aware he was a code talker," she said. "I don't think they so much talked to him about it because the Parkinson's kind of affected his speech.

"They knew Dad was a hero and that he loved our country, and he did support our troops in Iraq. He said we need to be over there. There are not many of these code talkers left. We need to honor them. We also need to direct our support in Iraq."

In the past months, she said, Crawford's thought processes slowed, he experienced difficulty swallowing, and his body kind of stiffened up.

"He never complained," she said. "He was always saying thank you and appreciative of everything the kids did for him. He set a very good example."

Visitation is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. today at FitzHenry's Funeral Home, 833 N. Edmonds St. A funeral service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at the Stewart Community Baptist Church, 5340 Snyder Ave. Burial with full military honors will follow at Lone Mountain Cemetery, 919 Beverly Drive.

n Contact reporter Maggie O'Neill at or 881-1219.


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