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The elite Marine unit of Navajo soldiers whose cryptic code remained unbroken during World War II was honored at the annual Veterans' Day parade in New York City. The Code Talkers are using their trip as a bid to raise funds for a museum to honor their contribution to defeating the Japanese. Few of the original 400 Navajo Code Talkers are still alive. They say unless a museum is built quickly their experiences will die with them.
A very public appearance for a very secret unit. Thirteen Code Talkers - many in their eighties - came from Arizona to New York to lead the parade.
During World War II, Navajo Code Talkers were assigned to each Marine unit in the Pacific. Their code, which used the Navajo Native American language, is credited with turning the tide at Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. The code was never broken by the Japanese.
Code Talker Keith Little is 85. He joined the Marines at 17 and served at Iwo Jima. He says it is fitting that the Code Talkers are being honored.
The Najavo code was so secret that its existence was classified until 1968. For these men, recognition from the US government was slow in coming. But no longer.
At the parade, they were guests of honor. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer praised the Code Talkers. "Thanks to our Navajo Code Talkers, what heroes," he said.
The Code Talkers say they hope their new fame will translate into donations for a proposed Navajo Code Talkers museum. Code Talker Peter McDonald Senior says their legacy is America's legacy too. "All Americans need to know what the Navajo code was all about, who used it, how it was used, why it was developed and what it meant in terms of saving lives and shortening the war in the Pacific," he said.
And on a floating museum - the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid - the Navajo Code Talkers were also guests of honor. On the 234th birthday of the Marine Corps, they stood side by side with veterans of more recent wars.
It was also an opportunity for the younger generation of the Navajo to honor their forefathers.
Joseph McKeever, a Navajo and a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, received a blessing from his elders. McKeever says he will try to follow in their footsteps. "They have left a lot of big shoes to fill, and I will try and do my best in my career in the future to represent them in the best way possible," he said.
As for the code, these Code Talkers can still remember how to use it.
That's code for send the demolition team. But this Navajo mission is about preservation - of their memories and their honor.