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He was one of the first. Now, the last: A Navajo code talker remembers Iwo Jima

Thomas Begay - U.S. Marine Corps (YouTube/U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

Swirled in cannon smoke from a 21-gun salute and washed in the applause Iwo Jima’s survivors have come to anticipate during their annual reunions at Camp Pendleton, one of the 27 veterans stood out.

Wearing a crimson garrison cap, his chest spangled with a giant silver medal rimmed in turquoise, Thomas Begay stared at the wreath commemorating the scores of dead from that World War II battle 73 years ago, but his mind wasn’t fully on the spectacle.

He was thinking about fellow Navajo code talker Teddy Draper Sr., who died Dec. 14 at 96 years old. His death came nine days after fellow Arizonan George B. Willie Sr. passed. He was 92.

“There were 33 of us assigned as Navajo code talkers but now there are no more. They’ve died,” said Begay, 92, who is believed to be the last surviving member of the 5th Marine Division’s famed bilingual radio unit on Iwo Jima.

He softly spoke to the Union-Tribune on Saturday after making the long trek from Albuquerque to California with retired Army lieutenant colonel Ronald Begay, the son who used to sit on his lap at these reunions.

He made a longer trip in World War II. It took him from boot camp in 1943 to the black sands of Iwo Jima on H-Hour, Feb. 19, 1945.

By the time he’d splashed ashore with the 27th Marines, his regiment already had lost two code talkers and he figured his odds were good to be the next.

“One was killed by a sniper. The other was a direct hit with a mortar,” said Begay, recalling 38 days of hell “and only one hot meal, when I was getting off the ship.”

They weren’t alone. Of the 110,000 GIs who stormed ashore Iwo Jima — mostly Marines and Navy corpsmen — nearly one out of every four became a casualty, including 6,821 killed in action.

Begay’s 27th Marine infantry regiment recorded 566 killed and 1,706 wounded.

“I got scared. I got really scared. My body, the whole thing got numb. I had no feeling. I was walking with my radio and it was hard, man. It’s huge and you’re by yourself and they’re trying to kill you,” he said.

Begay whispered about how Marines slapped corrugated metal across beach sand so they could scamper past the gunfire to safety.

He drew the route his 5th Marine Division took across the island, from raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi to the final Japanese suicide counterattack across a valley they called “Bloody Gorge.”

There also was the sickness that put him in a transport ship’s hospital after he left the island, probably malaria.

He pointed to the Congressional Silver Medal awarded to him and 300 other Navajo code talkers by President George W. Bush in 2001. The Marines estimate that they recruited about 400 Navajos into the program and 13 died in combat.

But mostly he wanted to bear witness to those initial 33 Navajos dragooned into the top secret code talker program inside Camp Pendleton’s 5th Marine Division in 1942 and 1943.

It started with 29 Navajos. They arrived on May 5, 1942 at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

After graduating, they received special instruction at Camp Elliott’s Fleet Marine Training Center — now part of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar — in how to encrypt messages and operate radios before moving on to Camp Pendleton.

“I didn’t want to join the code talkers! I signed up for aerial gunnery school,” said Begay. “I went to boot camp and they gave me a PFC stripe. I went to Camp Pendleton and walked into a barracks and I didn’t know any of them.

“I turned to the sergeant and said, ‘I think you made a mistake. I signed up to be an aerial gunner. I don’t want to be a code talker. I don’t know the code! I don’t know anything about code talking!’

“He said, ‘Too bad. If you leave, desert, we’re going to shoot you. If you refuse or disobey an order, we’re going to bust you to private and put you in the brig.’ So I was threatened. I had no choice.”

But Begay was a natural — smart enough to learn a 20 code primer the sergeant made him memorize the first day but also highly immersed in Navajo language and culture.

Born near the New Mexican hamlet of Two Wells in 1926, Begay was herding 2,000 sheep by the time he turned 6. He didn’t speak English until he was 13, when he was sent to school in Arizona, about three years before he joined the Marines.

“My mom said, ‘You’re name is Thomas. When the white man comes, say ‘Thomas.’ So whenever someone came up to me and said something in English, I said ‘Thomas,’” Begay recalled.

That pastoral upbringing was key to mastering the code.

The first part of the cipher relied on a phonetic alphabet linked to unwritten Navajo nouns. The other was a list of borrowed phrases the radiomen used to describe Japanese weapons and units.

For example, “S” in the phonetic alphabet was “dibeh” — Navajo for sheep. “L” was “dibeh-yazzie,” lamb. “Y” was “tsah-as-zih,” the yucca shrub prized for its fibers used in sacred ceremonies and the roots, which were boiled into soap.

A Japanese bomber became the Navajo noun for “buzzard.” A fighter was a “hummingbird.” A submarine, “iron fish.”

When Begay and his fellow code talkers seamlessly strung the letters and words together in radio traffic, it boggled Japanese code crackers but allowed American commanders to openly plot through their Najavo translators how to beat their enemies.

It was so successful on Iwo Jima that for two decades past the war Begay and his fellow code talkers weren’t allowed to divulge the classified program’s existence, a promise they kept but one that delayed widespread acclaim for their role in helping to win the war.

Shortly before Saturday’s service, Begay spoke of his eternal pride in being a Marine and marveled at the sacrifices he saw on Iwo Jima, but he also recalled the pain he and fellow Indians like Ira Hayes — the famous Akimel O’odham Marine who helped raised an American flag atop Suribachi on the first day of battle — endured in uniform.

“They made fun of us,” said Begay, breaking into a chant white Marines would use to lampoon them. “You know. It was really sad, how some people are so mean.”

Begay never quit serving his country. A year after his discharge from the Marines, he enlisted in the Army.

In late 1950 he found himself weighted down by a radio, scrabbling behind an artillery forward observer as they dodged Chinese sniper fire.

“He said, ‘Just follow me. I’ll tell you.’ I had a grease gun but they were trying to get us,” Begay said.

After his Army tour and two years of correspondence classes, he became a line officer in the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. He rose to helm the Chinle Agency, where he was responsible for the Navajo Nation tribal trust program.

He retired in 1984, finishing four decades of distinguished federal service in and out of uniform.

Before he left Saturday’s ceremony, he lingered a few moments to talk alone to Kathy Painton.

She’s the vice president of the 5th Marine Division Association, one of the nonprofits that has organized reunions and kept the memory of the dead alive in the souls of younger infantrymen.

Last year, they brought 15 Iwo Jima veterans to meet grunts training in Hawaii for different wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Painton was a baby when Iwo Jima was fought. Her dad, 25-year-old Private 1st Class George Addison Dunn of Danville, Illinois, died there.

She still wears a silver heart pendant he bought for her before he shipped out, the Marines’ eagle, globe and anchor insignia carved across it.

“They’re turning it over to us now,” she said. “It’s only us. We’ll carry on their memory.”


© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.