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Barstow resident one of few living Navajo Code Talkers

Staff Writer

BARSTOW • It was 1944 when Nelson Draper Sr. was recruited to the U.S. Marine Corps.

Draper was 25 and living rural life on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Chinle, Ariz., before he found himself aboard a ship on the front lines in the Pacific theater in a distinct unit of Navajo Code Talkers.

Draper joined the ranks of 420 others who used their native language to the U.S. military’s advantage in World War II and were pivotal to the Marine Corps success against the Japanese in Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Only a few Navajo Code Talkers remain alive today, according to the official Navajo Code Talker organization website. And at 93 years old, it is believed that Draper is the sole Code Talker veteran in San Bernardino County.

“We’re proud of my dad for being able to serve in the Marine Corps at that time and that he was able to be apart of the Code Talkers,” said Draper’s daughter, Orlinda Sanchez.

The Navajo language was chosen as a secret weapon in the United States’ war efforts because it was impossible for a non-Navajo to learn and had no written form. Before the use of Code Talkers, it took military personnel up to two hours to encrypt and decipher secret codes.

The Code Talkers had to be precise and accurate, having memorized several words without any texts to reference on the battlefield. Draper recalls the protection he and his brother Ted, who also served as a Code Talker, received in Okinawa because he said the other Marine Corps soldiers knew what a valuable role the Code Talkers played.

In 2001, Draper was one of 228 Code Talkers to receive the Congressional Silver Medal in a ceremony held in Window Rock, Ariz. The Congressional Silver Medal is one of the highest awards bestowed by Congress and each time it is presented it is redesigned for the recipient.

“I feel it means I’m a good fighter, a good warrior,” Draper said about receiving the medal.

Draper worked at the Marines Corps Logistics Base in Barstow for more than 30 years. He still lives in the city with his wife, Lena Draper.

He has seven children, 35 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren. Two of Draper’s grandchildren, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Pablo Herrera and Air Force Staff Sgt. Gabriel Draper, are also U.S. military veterans.


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