Navajo Code Talkers Day Celebration set at the State Capitol for Aug. 14

By: - August 12, 2022 4:47 pm
Navajo Code Talkers Thomas Begay

Navajo Code Talker Thomas H. Begay smiles as his family holds up a photo of him while he was enlisted in the U.S. Marines during World War II. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

One of the last living Navajo Code Talkers will be speaking in honor of Navajo Code Talkers Day on Aug. 14, marking the 80th anniversary of the Navajo Code Talkers.

Navajo Code Talker Thomas H. Begay, 98, is coming to Phoenix with his family from Albuquerque, N.M., to share his experience serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. The celebration will take place at the Wesley Bolin Plaza by the Navajo Code Talker statue at 8 a.m. on Aug. 14.

“They should honor the Navajo Code Talkers because they used their language in the war to help the United States,” Begay said in an interview with the Arizona Mirror

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He said that the Navajo Code talkers were able to use their own language to transmit secret messages during the war successfully, and nobody else could do that.

Begay served in the U.S. Marines from 1943 to 1946. He did a tour in the Pacific from August 1944 to July 1946 and was assigned to the 5th Marine Division Signal Company and in the Radio Section of the H & S company, 27th Marines.

The Navajo Code Talkers were a group of men who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and developed an unbreakable code that was used during World War II. They participated in all assaults the U.S. Marines led in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima.

Begay was one of the Navajo Code Talkers to serve on the assault at Iwo Jima. He was stationed there for 38 days in 1945. He saw the flags raised on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

Navajo Code Talker Thomas H. Begay was awarded the congressional silver medal, and he then turned that into a custom bolo tie that he wears often. The medal has the words “Diné bizaad yee atah Naayéé’ Yik’eh Deesdlíí” engraved on it, which translates to “The Navajo language defeated the enemy.” Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

The Navajo Code Talker program was not declassified until 1968, but even then the role the code talkers played in World War II was not widely known. 

It wasn’t until 1982 that they received some form of recognition when President Ronald Reagan declared Aug. 14 as National Code Talkers Day.

Begay is also responsible for connecting with congressional representatives back in the 1980s to get Navajo Code Talkers recognized on a national level.

Begay’s son, Ronald C. Begay, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, said that his dad reached out to congressmen from Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona to initiate the recognition of the Navajo Code Talkers.

“Up to that point in time, there was no formal recognition,” Ronald said. “He took it upon himself to contact the Congressman from those states.” 

Begay said the congressmen went through military archives and records to verify who the Navajo Code Talkers were and their service. After their investigations, Begay said they introduced a resolution for National Navajo Code Talkers Day.

The Navajo Code Talkers received another form of recognition in 2000, when the Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act was signed into law, and again in 2001 when they were honored with Congressional Gold and Silver Medals. 

“In the long run, they were recognized, but it kind of came a little late, many years after the Code Talker (program) was declassified,” Ronald said. 

The U.S. Marines originally recruited only 29 Navajo men to be Code Talkers in 1942. They all had to meet the general qualifications of a Marine, but also be fluent in Navajo and English. After the first group proved how successful they were at transmitting code, the U.S. Marines started to recruit more. 

Only three Navajo Code Talkers are still alive. The total number of Navajo Code Talkers that served in the U.S. Marines is not known, but it is estimated to be more than 400. The last living Navajo Code Talkers are Begay, John Kinsel Sr. and Peter MacDonald.

The Navajo code was made up of words selected from the Navajo language and used to describe military phrases. Since the Navajo language has no military terminology, the Navajo Code Talkers have to develop the code using Navajo words that were given military meaning. 

For instance, the word Tsidi-Moffa-Ye-Hi means bird carrier in Navajo, but was used as the word for “aircraft.” The initial Navajo code had 211 terms, which grew to 411 as the war continued. 

An annual celebration for Navajo Code Talkers Day is held on the Navajo Nation each year in Window Rock. The celebration for Navajo Code Talker Day this year will feature a ceremony, parade, keynote speakers, and a gourd dance. 

This year, the Navajo Nation Code Talkers Museum, Inc., will be breaking ground for the Navajo Code Talker Museum in Tse Bonito, New Mexico. For more information about the Navajo Code Talkers and the museum, visit their website at www.nationalnavajocodetalkersday.com.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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