PHOENIX (AP) – It’s been 80 years since the first Navajo code talkers joined the Marines, relaying messages using a code based on their then-unwritten native language to confuse Japanese military cryptologists during World War II, and Thomas H. Begay, one of the last living members of the group, still remembers the fight.
“It was the hardest thing to learn,” Begay, 98, said Sunday at a ceremony in Phoenix to mark the anniversary. “But we were able to devise a code that could not be broken by the enemy of the United States of America.”
Hundreds of Navajos were recruited by the US Marines to serve as code talkers during the war. Begay is one of three still alive to talk about it.
The Code Talkers participated in every assault the Marines led in the Pacific between 1942 and 1945, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima.
They sent thousands of error-free messages about Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics, and other communications crucial to the ultimate outcome of the war.
President Ronald Reagan established Navajo Code Talkers Day in 1982, and the August 14 holiday honors all tribes associated with the war effort.
It is also an Arizona state holiday and a Navajo Nation holiday on the large reservation that occupies parts of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah.
Begay and his family came from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Phoenix for Sunday’s event at Wesley Bolin Plaza where a Navajo Code Talker statue is on display.