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Ernest Yazhe, part of the famed Navajo Code Talkers who joined the U.S. Marine Corps and relayed messages during World War II, died Tuesday at a hospice in Holladay. He was 92.
Yazhe, who was a longtime Sandy resident, died from renal failure, said his daughter Melissa Yazhe.
The Code Talkers, as they came to be known, began with 29 recruits who joined the Marines in the spring of 1942. Yazhe enlisted in September 1942, at age 19, shortly after his graduation from the Albuquerque Indian School. An older brother, Harrison Yazhe, also joined the Marines and became a Code Talker. He died in 2004.
Yazhe served in the Guam and Okinawa campaigns. With radios, the Code Talkers would relay battlefield messages in their native language, frustrating the Japanese who monitored the communications.
In a 2013 video produced by the Utah National Guard, Yazhe described hearing the Japanese utter the words "Code Talkers" as the Japanese discussed on the radio the transmissions they were hearing.
The Japanese were "sorry that they couldn't understand it," Yazhe said in the video.
While the two Yazhe Code Talkers survived the war, another brother, U.S. Army Pfc. Silas Yazzie, died in combat in Italy in 1944.
The Marines discharged Yazhe in 1946 with the rank of corporal. Melissa Yazhe on Thursday said her father seldom participated in Code Talker reunions or celebrations, but in 2001 traveled to Window Rock, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation for a ceremony presenting Code Talkers with the Congressional Silver Medal.
In 2011, Ernest and Harrison Yazhe's names appeared in the Congressional record on the list of about 300 Code Talkers confirmed by the Marines.
Ernest Yazhe was born May 5, 1923, in Naschitti, N.M., on the Navajo reservation to Taneezahni Yazhi and Nannebah Belle Yazhi. He had no middle name. Family on Thursday said that at some point, the surnames of all the couple's children were written down phonetically by either school staff or the military, leaving them with different spellings than their parents.
Robert S. McPherson, a professor of history at Utah State University's Blanding campus and who has published a book on the Code Talkers, said Thursday that the Code Talkers program was top secret. Yazhe would not have known what he was signing up for.
"He just knew that he was joining the Marines," McPherson said.
In 1943, Yazhe and other Marines departed San Diego by ship and went to training at New Caledonia, a Pacific island east of Australia. His first combat was in Guam, a three-week campaign that began in July 1944.
Then, on April 1, 1945, Yazhe and other Marines landed in Okinawa, Japan, for a 10-week campaign.
Joel Frank, one of Yazhe's sons-in-law, said that after the war, Yazhe did not offer any specifics of the combat he experienced, except that he had served on the front lines and under fire. Most of Yazhe's seven children were teenagers before they knew what he did during the war. Frank attributed Yazhe's silence, in part, to how the Code Talkers program remained classified until 1968.
"He just kind of put it in the back of his mind and he never talked about it," Frank said.
After Japan surrendered, Yazhe was sent to China to help repatriate Japanese prisoners of war there, Frank said.
After his discharge, Yazhe went to work for the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City. There, he met Katie Trujillo, whom he married.
In 1948, Yazhe went to work at Kennecott Mining Corp., which operates Kennecott Utah Copper. He worked there in various positions for 38 years.
Yazhe's wife died in 2007. One son, Gary Yazhe, died in 2010.
Besides Melissa Yazhe, survivors include three other daughters, Maxine K. Mountainlion, Marcia A. Picklesimer and Maureen Frank; two sons, Ernest J. and Kevin J. Yazhe; two brothers, Herbert Yahze, of Gallup, N.M., and Albert Yahze, of Farmington, N.M.; and four sisters Marie Begay, Evelyn Billy, Helen Begay, all of Naschitti, and Clara Waska.
Visitation will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at the Evans & Early Mortuary, 574 E. 100 South in Salt Lake City. Services and interment will be 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Utah Veterans Cemetery, 17111 S. Camp Williams Road in Bluffdale.