One of four surviving World War II Navajo Code Talkers spoke of his wartime experiences at an Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce in New Mexico event Aug. 15. 2020.
Thomas H. Begay, 96, was among the 400 Navajo Code Talkers who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.
About 25 people attended the hour-long evening presentation at the Sheraton Albuquerque Uptown Hotel, part of the AHCC “Story Tellers Culture Series.”
Col. David S. Miller, commander of the 377th Air Base Wing and installation commander at Kirtland Air Force Base, introduced Begay, providing historical context for his service and how it applies to current events.
“The Axis was breaking our codes. They knew where we were going and what we were doing. The Navajo Code Talkers brought something that could not be broken — the only unbroken code that the military used. It was critically important what they were bringing to the fight. Very few could do what he did for our entire military and our way of life. His story will resonate when we look at what’s going on in the news. When we look at where this country is with diversity — we’re not where we need to be. His successes show why diversity is so important to our country. We could not have come up with Navajo Code Talkers without the Navajo. That got us through the war. How many other secret talents do many parts of our culture have? We need to come together as a country. It’s my very great honor to introduce Mr. Tom Begay.”
Begay was born in a remote area 18 miles south of Gallup, N.M., and grew up speaking only Navajo. He said he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943, intending to become an aerial gunner. However, history, and the Marines, had other plans for him. Begay’s native Navajo language fluency would see him placed instead into a highly specialized combat communications role.
He was selected as one of 33 Navajo Code Talkers assigned to the Fifth Marine Division Signal Company. The Navajo Code Talkers developed and used a secret coded language for field radio and telephone communication, using words from their native tongue that were known to few non-Navajos. For operational security, there were no written codebooks, so before the young Marine was deployed for the Pacific campaign, he had to memorize 400 codes within 30 days. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, from February 19 to March 27, 1945, Pfc. Begay transmitted hundreds of secret messages over the radio network. The code, based on a complex, unwritten and unfamiliar language, was so effective that Japanese cryptographers never broke it.
Iwo Jima was an important objective for the Allied war effort in the Pacific, because the island’s airfields were able to serve as staging areas for U.S. Army Air Force bomber aircraft, and their fighter escorts, flying missions to strike targets in Japan.
Begay said he and other Navajo Code Talkers survived the Battle of Iwo Jima because of mutual support among members of his unit.
“I was protected by Marines. They protected us, and we protected them. I was lucky. Some of the others weren’t as lucky.”
Maj. Howard M. Conner, Fifth Marine Division signal officer at Iwo Jima, said, “During the first 48 hours, while we were landing and consolidating our shore positions, I had six Navajo radio networks operating around the clock. In that period alone, they sent and received over 800 messages, without an error. Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
After the Allies won the war, Lance Cpl. Begay was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in July 1946. Following a year of civilian life, he then served as a parachutist and glider-man with the U.S. Army, starting in July 1947, including combat service with the 7th Infantry Division in the Korean War. Begay survived the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, from November 27 through December 13, 1950, fighting North Korean and Chinese forces and enduring subfreezing temperatures that reached 36 degrees below zero. Staff Sgt. Begay was honorably discharged, for the second and final time, in August 1953.
Among Begay’s military awards and decorations are the Presidential Unit Citation with three Bronze Stars and the Meritorious Unit Citation with the Korean Service Medal, with five Bronze Stars. In 2001, he received the Congressional Silver Medal from President George W. Bush.
As a civilian, Begay completed a two-year correspondence course from Utah State University, then began a career with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. There, he rose from a GS-2 to a GS-14, culminating 40 years of federal service as Superintendent of the Chinle Agency in Arizona, where he was responsible for Navajo Nation tribal trust programs, before his retirement in 1984.
In 2015, Begay starred in a feature film called “Legends From The Sky,” as “Chei,” meaning “Grandpa.” In 2017, his book, “Voices of Victory,” was published.
Begay continues to travel, participating in traditional ceremonies and speaking engagements.