Navajo code talker played pivotal role in the Battle of Iwo Jima

Nov 10, 2023, 4:05 AM

Navajo code talker Thomas Begay, who is now 97 years old, helped play a pivotal role in the Battle ...

Navajo code talker Thomas Begay, who is now 97 years old, helped play a pivotal role in the Battle of Iwo Jima. (KTAR News Photo/Ben Brown)

(KTAR News Photo/Ben Brown)

This is the seventh of seven articles highlighting the grand marshals of the 2023 Phoenix Veterans Day Parade.

PHOENIX — At just 16 years old, Thomas Begay enlisted in the United States Marine Corps during World War II as a Navajo code talker with the renowned 5th Marine Division Signal Company.

Navajo code talkers proved pivotal in the success of the war, especially during the Battle of Iwo Jima, when Begay and his fellow code talkers transmitted hundreds of messages without error – stumping the Japanese cryptographers.

“February 19, 1945 … stark landing at the Red Beach,” Begay told KTAR News, as he recounted the day that changed his life forever. “It’s a sad thing, my friends got killed – two of them.”

In an interview with the Library of Congress, the 97-year-old said he never wanted to be a code talker, rather an aerial gunner.

“I went through boot camp, then they sent me to a line camp,” Begay told the Library of Congress. “All the orders were ‘report to building so-and-so,’ so I did. And there was a whole bunch of Navajos in there. I didn’t know any of them; they were from another location on the reservation. And a sergeant says, ‘You will be a code talker.’

“I said, ‘I didn’t sign up to be a code talker, I don’t want to be a code talker! I want to be an aerial gunner.’ ‘Too bad!’ he said.

But Begay’s service helped change the trajectory of the way and contributed significantly to an Allied victory. He went on to fight in the Korean War, where he survived the Chosin Reservoir battle.

Begay earned several accolades for his service, including the prestigious Congressional Silver Medal. He is one of just three surviving Navajo Code Talkers.

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Navajo code talker played pivotal role in the Battle of Iwo Jima