Navajo Code Talker Thomas H. Begay stood at the podium dressed in his gold button-up shirt adorned with his service medals and a custom bolo tie made out of his congressional silver medal that is surrounded by turquoise. He wore his red U.S. Marine Corps hat that has Navajo Code Talker embroidered in gold thread on the one side and Iwo Jima Survivor on the other.
“Today, it is set to remember Navajo Code Talkers,” Begay, 98, said. “There are many celebrations throughout the country because of our leaders.”
The weather was warm, but Sunday morning clouds shaded everyone in attendance as they listened to Begay honor all the Navajo Code Talkers — those who made it home and those who didn’t.
“It was the hardest thing to learn,” Begay said of the Navajo Code used during World War II. “But we were able to develop a code that cannot be broken by the enemy.”
Begay was the guest of honor during Arizona’s first official Navajo Code Talker Day celebration, and he was met with dozens of supporters by the Navajo Code Talkers Memorial in Wesley Bolin Plaza on Aug. 14.
The way he chose to do this was through song: Begay chose to sing the U.S. Marine Corps hymn in Navajo. His son, Ronald Begay, encouraged his father to sing the song and he happily stood at the podium to do so.
When he finished, he was met with applause from spectators.
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.
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.
It was an emotional day for a lot of people as they gathered to celebrate the Navajo Code Talkers, there were some of the families of the code talkers who passed in attendance.
Michael V. Smith helped coordinate the event, and he’s the son of the late Navajo Code Talker Samuel Smith, Sr. Smith has helped plan and coordinate events to honor the code talkers for years, and for him, Navajo Code Talker Day is every day because of his father.
“All these men, when they came back, they were prominent figures in the community, but we never knew what they did,” Smith said. “My dad never talked about it.”
Having a day dedicated to Navajo Code Talkers is meaningful, Smith said, because those men went through something hard, and for them to have a day where they can all sit together and share stories is important.
“They went through the same thing, that bonds you,” he said, adding that being among the Navajo Code Talkers is a great blessing.
“They all did something that nobody thought that they could do,” Smith said. “Nobody thought they had the ability to do (it), but they created a code, a military code, and nobody could break it. Every other code was broken.”
“It’s just remarkable to be able to sit down with them and know that these men can do something like that and yet they are our grandpas, our dads, our judges, (and) our school teachers,” he added.
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 Code Talkers are Begay, John Kinsel Sr. and Peter MacDonald.
“It’s been a tearful day,” said Smith’s wife, Henrietta. She remembered her father-in-law during the event, and when she heard the 21-gun salute, she said she thought of all the Navajo Code Talkers.
“He’s one of the few to make it home and to have a legacy,” she said. “It’s overwhelming with joy and you feel so proud that they’re being recognized each year.
“We have three Code Talkers left, and it’s nice for them to have a legacy.”
The event lasted for about two hours, and featured a posting of colors, a 21-gun salute, and a wreath laying at the Navajo Code Talker Memorial statue by the Ira Hayes American Legion Post 84. State Sen. Theresa Hatathlie and former State Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai both gave a welcoming address, and Begay was the keynote speaker.
“I feel very honored that so many people stepped up to the plate and witnessed this first event,” Hatathlie said, adding that she was humbled that the opportunity to host the event was given to her office.
Hatathlie said it’s a historic event because it honors the Navajo individuals who used the Navajo language to develop an unbreakable code.
“They fought for democracy and freedom at a time when they didn’t even have the right to vote,” she said. “That, for me, is significant.”
National Navajo Code Talkers Day became a legal state holiday in 2021. The legislation doing so was sponsored by Peshlakai, and she said that it passed both the House and Senate floors with no opposition and was met with a standing ovation.
Seeing the day finally happen was an achievement, Peshlakai said.
“It is about educating future generations,” she said, noting that Native people continue to play a big role in the military.
Indigenous people serve in the armed forces at five times the national average and have served in every major conflict for over 200 years, according to the National Indian Council on Aging.
“We have contributed to every conflict and safeguarded our sacred homelands,” Peshlakai said. “We’ve defended it time and time again.”
This article was first published in AZ Mirror.