Code talker, 87, never misses a day in kindergarten Oct 1, 2010 Early in the morning, as the sun creeps up behind the hills, David Patterson puts on his jacket and heads out the door of his Shiprock home. He makes a three-mile walk across busy U.S. 91 to a kindergarten class at Atsa' Biyaazh Community School. Patterson, 87, one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, takes the daily stroll to the classroom of 18 smiling children who make his day. "I like to work with kids and they like me," he said. "Everywhere I go, no matter whose kids, in town, anywhere, I hear 'Grandpa, Grandpa.' "They come around to me, hug me, they make me feel good so they are just like my grandkids," he said. Foster grandparent For the last seven years Patterson has made his morning walk to the school to spend about six hours with the kindergarten class. He serves under the Foster Grandparent Program and helps the teacher with daily lessons, teaches Navajo language, and often patrols the halls and manages the children during breakfast and lunch. Atsa' Biyaazh reading coach Julia Donald said Patterson is considered to be everybody's grandpa at the school. She said teachers, staff and students all respect and look up to him. "We are very lucky to have him. He is like a role model," she said. "Everyone likes him, there's respect all the way around." Patterson works just as hard as the other teachers and asks for nothing in return. He knows what his daily duties are and can't think of a better way to spend his time. "I come in and do some bilingual, teaching them how to say different things," he said. "Hogan, sheep and other animals, birds and what it means in Navajo and all that. "Some speak very little Navajo," he said. "They're learning slowly. Nowadays it seems like parents, they don't have time to teach their kids. They're all working or doing some other things." That's why Patterson spends his days helping in the kindergarten class, but his work with the Navajo language started many years before. Code Talker tells of Navajos’ role in WWII Pacific combat When Mike Patterson asked what his dad did in World War II, it was a short conversation. “My dad said he was in communications,” said Patterson, a Vancouver resident. “That’s all he would say.” There actually was more to the story. It involved combat in the Pacific and a top-secret program. David Patterson was a Marine Corps communication specialist for sure. He communicated in Navajo. The Navajo Code Talker was the keynote speaker Thursday morning when more than 500 people gathered to celebrate Veterans Day at a historic Vancouver cemetery. Patterson discussed the role he and about 400 other Navajo men played as U.S. Marines during the war in the Pacific, more than 65 years ago. Their tribal language was the basis for a communications system that helped U.S. forces relay orders and information quickly and securely, in a code the Japanese were unable to break. “It’s a very hard language,” Patterson said. To someone who didn’t know the code, “It was like someone from outer space talking,” Patterson said during Thursday’s observance at the post cemetery along Fourth Plain Boulevard. The code included some word swaps. “Birds for airplanes,” he said. Or, “You could use the first letters of words to spell out other words.” After his presentation, Patterson was asked about the islands where his Marine unit landed. The 88-year-old veteran recited a list of places where history was made: “Marshall Islands, Kwajalein, Iwo Jima, Saipan.” The Code Talker program remained a secret until 1968. Patterson’s appearance was set up by his son. Mike Patterson is a chef at Vancouver’s Elks Lodge 823; the Elks brought David Patterson to Vancouver to be the featured speaker at their Veterans Day dinner. Thursday’s 11 a.m. observance was in a suitable setting, a military cemetery where four Medal of Honor recipients are buried. Two of the kids who went to school with his father in New Mexico went on to receive Medals of Honor during World War II, Mike Patterson noted. That reflected the Code Talkers’ contributions to victory in the Pacific. The people of David Patterson’s generation were part of another chapter of history when they were born. “We weren’t citizens of the United States,” he said. Patterson was born on Nov. 11, 1922 — which is why his son shouted, “Happy birthday, dad!” during the Veterans Day event. It wasn’t until June 2, 1924, that Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act. The veterans who attended the event ranged from Patterson’s World War II contemporaries to current soldiers and Marines who participated in the ceremony. One of the veterans, Dave Browne of Ridgefield, earned a Purple Heart about 20 years ago in Panama. Browne said he was taking cover behind a corner of a building as enemy automatic-weapons fire was zeroing in on his position. “Rounds were walking in, and I looked around the brick wall,” he said. One of the bullets shattered a brick as he was peeking around the corner. “I got hit by a brick shard,” Browne said, tapping a scar on his forehead. As he reflected on other soldiers’ combat wounds, “I felt kind of guilty,” Browne said. Browne achieved an important objective before Thursday’s event started. Browne brought along a book about the secret language program that had already been signed by five other Navajo Code Talkers.
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