CAMP VERDE, Ariz. -- Lloyd Oliver wasn't much of a talker, but it was clear that he was proud to have his native language serve as a key weapon during World War II. As part of an elite group of Marines, he helped develop and implement a code based on the Navajo language that helped win the war.
Years later, his hearing remained impaired because of gun blasts and other explosives during the war. He rarely brought up his time as a Code Talker, but his eyes gleamed when holding a picture of himself in his uniform. He kept a Marine cap and a U.S. flag displayed on his bedroom walls in the home he shared with his wife on the Yavapai Apache Reservation.
Oliver's death Wednesday means only one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers survives -- Chester Nez, of Albuquerque, N.M. The 88-year-old Oliver died at a hospice center in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale where he had been staying for about three weeks, his nephew, Lawrence, said Friday.
"It's very heartbreaking to know that we are losing our Navajo Code Talkers, and especially one of the original 29 whose stories would be tremendously valuable," said Yvonne Murphy, secretary of the Navajo Code Talkers Foundation.
Hundreds of Navajos followed in the original code talkers' footsteps, sending thousands of messages without error on Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics and other communications critical to the war's ultimate outcome.
The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific.
Navajo President Ben Shelly called Oliver a "national treasure" and ordered flags lowered across the reservation in his honor.
The Code Talkers were instructed not to discuss their roles and felt compelled to honor those orders even after the code was declassified in 1968. His military records make a single mention of "code talker." He otherwise was listed as "communication duty" or "communication personnel."
Oliver was attending school in Shiprock, N.M., when he signed up for the Marine Corps in 1942 and was discharged as a corporal three years later.
Oliver's brother, Willard, also served as a Code Talker and died in October 2009. When Lloyd married his second wife, Lucille, in 2006 after they had been together for years, he was able to mutter "I do." But "those were the only two words," she said.
The couple moved to the Phoenix area last year as his health was failing. His family remembered him as a quiet, giving man.
"We will miss his wonderful smile most of all. He loved his family and was very proud to be a Navajo Code Talker," his stepdaughter, Louanna Hall, said in a statement.