Saturday, April 8, 2023

Thomas H. Begay, Navajo Code Talker

Deposit Photos
by Martha Hutchens

Earlier this month I shook hands with history.

Thomas H. Begay, one of the few surviving Navajo Code Talkers, spoke at Santa Fe Public Library. This 96-year-old man spoke for nearly an hour, never missing a beat, and keeping both the main meeting room and the overflow room enthralled.

He told his personal history, the story of a man who didn’t know his own birthday, only that he was born in a Hogan when the moon was in a certain position and there was approximately two feet of snow on the ground.

Deposit Photos
He grew up helping with his family’s 2000 sheep and spoke only Navajo until he was a teenager. But in the 1930s, when much of the U. S. was gripped in the Dust Bowl, the U. S. government became concerned with overgrazing in the southwest. Livestock owners were taxed, and the number of animals allowed on the land decreased, as did the Begay family’s flock. Thomas’ father became concerned about his children following him into the livestock industry. When Thomas was 13, his father sent him to a boarding school in Fort Defiance, Arizona.

Thomas entered the school unable to say anything in English besides his first name. He answered every question with “Thomas.” None of the children at the school had last names, so the school assigned names to them. Thomas was assigned the last name “Begay,” as were many other children. It came from biye’, meaning “his son.”

As was the norm in these schools, Thomas was punished for speaking Navajo. Common punishments included beatings, standing in the corner for hours, or having their mouths washed out with soap. The children quickly learned that nothing good would come from speaking the Navajo language. Of course, history would have the last laugh on that.

In 1896, Philip Johnston’s family moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, to establish a Christian mission. Johnston was four, and grew up speaking Navajo along with English. Early in 1942, Johnston, one of the few non-Navajo who spoke the language fluently, read an article in a newspaper about army efforts to use Native Americans to transmit codes during World War I. He knew Navajo was a complicated tonal language that might well frustrate the enemy, and presented this idea to a signal officer in the Marine Corps. When the Marine Corps mentioned the problems with previous attempts, such as the lack of words for modern military terms, Johnston proposed substituting common terms in the language as a type of code. The signal officer asked Johnston to arrange a demonstration.

On February 27, 1942, Johnston and four Navajo men returned to the base. In 90 minutes, they put together a code with a list of necessary terms. They were then divided into two teams, and were able to transfer the information perfectly. The Marine Corps actively recruited 29 men and assigned them the task of developing what was to become history’s only unbreakable code.

Deposit Photos
The code was startling simple. All the participants were fluent in both Navajo and English. Their first task was to develop an alphabet code. They chose an English word that began with each letter of the alphabet, such as “ant” for “a” and “bear” for “b.” Then they used the Navajo word for ant or bear. They used other names of animals (and sometimes foods) for other items, such as “hummingbird” for fighter planes and “whale” for battleships. Eventually, they added more terms to represent letters in order to frustrate Japanese code breakers.

Of course, Thomas Begay knew nothing about this. Almost no one did. Secrecy surrounding this program was strict. While they were developing the code, the original 29 were not allowed to leave the building or the compound alone or without permission.

Deposit Photos
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Thomas was 15. He watched many of his fellow Navajo join up, and also watched newsreels at the theater near his school. When the first group of code talkers left for the Pacific, he was starting his final year at Fort Defiance School. Though he was 16, he was in fifth grade, since he didn’t start school until 13. He was restless and had already held jobs making bread and chopping wood. But in the summer of 1943, he was unable to find a job. His final shot at a job was at the ammunition depot in Flagstaff, where the manager told Thomas that he was too young for the job. Thomas replied that he was going to join the Marines and he would return to see him when he got back from combat. He was 17.

Thomas was very disappointed to be assigned to Code Talker School. He wanted to be an aerial gunner. He even claimed that he didn’t speak Navajo, to which the sergeant replied that a court martial was on the table. Thomas went to Code Talker’s school. He completed the course in November 1943.

Thomas fought on the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, and finally at Iwo Jima. 

Deposit Photos

While the Code Talkers were already appreciated for their unique abilities, at Iwo Jima they completely proved their worth. They handled all communications between the command post at sea and the forward stations, sending more than 800 messages during the first 48 hours. Considering the best coding and decoding operations that did not involve Code Talkers took 4 hours for a single message, that is remarkable. They sent the message that Mount Suribachi was secured—the place with the famous photo of four men raising the US Flag. They sent the final message that the island was secured. And they sent thousands of messages in between—none of which could be understood by the enemy. Major Howard M. Conner, signal officer for the 5thMarine Division, said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the marines would have never taken Iwo Jima and won the war.”

After Iwo Jima, Thomas worked at Pearl Harbor’s radio base, reviewing messages that had been sent for errors and training Code Talkers, including some would serve at Okinawa. He was honorably discharged in 1946. On his way home to New Mexico, he attempted to find the manager who refused to hire him, but was unable to locate him.

He was unable to inform his family that he was on his way home, but his simple “Hi, Mom, I’m home,” was no doubt just as appreciated as long letters with his itinerary.

Thomas went on to serve in Korea as a paratrooper and infantryman. He was discharged in 1953. He married and had four children, who all served in the military. Most were at the library in Santa Fe earlier this month, along with some grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The Navajo code remained classified until 1968. Gradually the story of these men became known to the public. They were recognized by Nixon, Carter, and Reagan. A Code Talker GI Joe Figurine was released in 2001, voiced by one of the original developers of the code, Sam Billison. In 2000, the U. S. Congress passed legislation to provide the Code Talkers with Congressional Medals. The original 29 received gold medals and the others received silver medals. Thomas Begay had his medal made into a bolo tie, which he brought to his talk.

Photo by Martha Hutchens

Photo by Martha Hutchens

Mr. Begay’s talk at the library coincided with Alysa Landry’s release of his biography in 2023. It is available on Amazon. I am including a picture of it, and of his autograph.

Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website,

After saving for years, Dot Finley's brother finally paid a down payment for his own land—only to be drafted into World War II. Now it is up to her to ensure that he doesn't lose his dream while fighting for everyone else's. No one is likely to help a sharecropper's family.

Nate Armstrong has all the land he can manage, especially if he wants any time to spend with his four-year-old daughter. Still, he can't stand by and watch the Finley family lose their dream. Especially after he learns that the banker's nephew has arranged to have their loan called.

Necessity forces them to work together. Can love grow along with crops?


  1. Oh, what a great person to meet! He must have been fascinating! I have long wanted to learn more about the Code Talkers, and one day must make the time to do so.
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thank you for posting today, and for telling this incredible story! How exciting it must have been to meet this man.