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WWII vet, one of last Navajo Code Talkers, dies at 97

Three Navajo Code Talkers, Fleming Begaye, Thomas Begay and Peter MacDonald, were honored for their work during World War II by President Donald J. Trump at the White House, Nov. 27, 2017. (Lance Cpl. Ryan Sammet/Department of Defense)
May 14, 2019

Fleming Begaye Sr., 97, a member of the top-secret Navajo Code Talker program used during World War II, has passed away.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez announced that Begaye died on Friday in Chinle, Ariz., AP News reported.

On Friday, Nez tweeted, “The Navajo Nation mourns the loss of Navajo Code Talker Fleming Begaye, Sr., who passed away today at the age of 97. We offer our heartfelt appreciation to the family for sharing his life with us. May the Creator bless you and your family with strength and comfort.”

From 1943 to 1945, Begaye was a U.S. Marine and one of some 400 Navajo soldiers that used a secret code that was unable to be deciphered by the Japanese, CNN reported. He fought in the Pacific campaigns of World War II, the Battle of Tarawa and the Battle of Tinian.

Only seven of those 400 remains.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said, “Today, Arizona celebrates the life of Mr. Begaye, and we express our gratitude for his service and sacrifice in defense of freedom. We express our deepest sympathies to Mr. Begaye’s family, friends and the entire Navajo Nation.”

In Nov. 2017, Begaye and two other code talkers were honored by President Donald Trump at a White House ceremony, where Trump said, “I have to say, I said to Gen. (John) Kelly … I said, ‘How good were these code talkers? What was it?’ He said, ‘Sir, you have no idea. You have no idea how great they were — what they’ve done for this country, and the strength and the bravery and the love that they had for the country.'”

In 2001, President George W. Bush presented the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers with the Congressional Gold Medal.

The Navajo Code Talker program that Begaye was part of “created more than 200 new Navajo words for military terms and committed them to memory. These words were used in part to send information on tactics, troop movements and orders over the radio and telephone during WWII,” CNN explained.

The U.S. military victories at Iwo Jima, Saipan, and others claim the secret code as a major contributor to the successes due to more than 800 secret messages that were able to be sent in a two-day period, all without error.

Maj. Howard Connor, the signal officer of the Navajos said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

Not until 1967 did the military declassify the Navajo Code Talker program.