The last 5 living Navajo Code Talkers share their stories | News Coverage from USA

The last 5 living Navajo Code Talkers share their stories

In 1942, during the depths of World War II, the United States Marine Corps recruited 29 Navajo men to develop an unbreakable code that would be used across the Pacific during the war.

They would later be known as Navajo Code Talkers.

The Code Talkers participated in assaults that the United States Marines led in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, including the Guadalcanal campaign and the battles of Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima.

They conveyed messages by telephone and radio in the Navajo language, a code that was never broken by the Japanese. By the end of the war, there would be more than 400 Navajo men who served as Code Talkers.

Only five are living today: Peter MacDonald, Joe Vandever Sr., Samuel F. Sandoval, Thomas H. Begay, and John Kinsel Sr.

In the early part of 2019, the Navajo Nation lost three code talkers in less than a month. As a result, The Arizona Republic decided to document and share their stories.

Over the course of a week in July, reporter Shondiin Silversmith and photographer Mark Henle traveled hundreds of miles across the Navajo Nation to interview each of the living Navajo Code Talkers, who are now 90 to 98 years old.

They went from Shiprock, New Mexico, to Tuba City, from Lukachukai, to Hogback, New Mexico, and ended their trip in Albuquerque. 

Each of the Navajo Code Talkers and their families agreed to be interviewed and have their photos taken.

Here are five profiles of each of the Navajo Code Talkers. 

John Kinsel Sr.

John Kinsel Sr., 98, from Lukachukai, Arizona, served in the United States Marine Corps from 1942 to 1945 as a Navajo Code Talker. Kinsel was 18 at the time of his enlistment and he was honorably discharged on Jan. 1, 1946.

Kinsel was awarded the purple heart on April 11, 1989, for wounds he received in action at Iwo Jima on March 2, 1945. He received a congressional silver medal for his service as a Navajo Code Talker in 2001.

Read more about Kinsel and his experiences as a Navajo Code Talker.

Samuel F. Sandoval

Samuel F. Sandoval, 96, from Shiprock, New Mexico, served in the United States Marine Corps from 1943 to 1946 as a Navajo Code Talker. Sandoval was 18 at the time of his enlistment and he was honorably discharged on Jan. 26, 1946.

Sandoval’s active military service involved five combat tours: Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu and Okinawa. He was awarded a congressional silver medal for his service as a Navajo Code Talker in 2001.

Read more about Sandoval and his experiences as a Navajo Code Talker.

Thomas H. Begay

Thomas H. Begay, 94, is originally from a remote area near Chichiltah, New Mexico, but resides with his family in Window Rock. He served in the United States Marine Corp from 1943 to 1946 as a Navajo Code Talker. He was 17 at the time of his enlistment and he was honorably discharged on July 23, 1946.

Begay served as a Navajo Code Talker during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, and he remembers staying on the island for 38 days. He was assigned to the 5th Marine Division Signal Company and in the Radio Section of the H & S company, 27th Marines.

Read more about Begay and his experiences as a Navajo Code Talker.

Joe Vandever Sr.

Joe Vandever Sr., 96, from Haystack, New Mexico, served in the United States Marine Corps from 1943 to 1946 as a Navajo Code Talker. Vandever was drafted at the age of 19, and he was honorably discharged in January 1946.

Vandever was apart of the 6th Marine Division during his service in Okinawa, Japan, and China. He was in the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion in Bougainville, and then the 4th Marines Regiment Brigade while in Guam.

Read more about Vandever and his experiences as a Navajo Code Talker.

Peter MacDonald

Peter MacDonald, 90, from Tuba City, Arizona, served in the United States Marine Corps from 1944 to 1946 as a Navajo Code Talker. MacDonald was only 15 at the time of his enlistment, and he was honorably discharged in 1946.

He was inspired to join the military because of the Marine Corps uniform. MacDonald’s older cousin joined the Marines in 1943, and during a furlough visit back to the Navajo Nation, MacDonald saw his cousin in his “beautiful blue” uniform.

Read more about MacDonald and his experiences as a Navajo Code Talker.

2011 interview with Chester Nez

Chester Nez was the last of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. He died in 2014. 

In October 2011, The Arizona Republic interviewed Nez about his service, the making of the code and his life after WWII.

Read more about Chester Nez, the last of the original Navajo Code Talkers.

How Navajo Code Talkers created an unbreakable code

In 1942, 29 Navajo men joined the U.S. Marines and developed an unbreakable code that would be used across the Pacific during World War II. They were the Navajo Code Talkers.

The Navajo Code Talkers participated in all assaults that the U.S. Marines led in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima. The Code Talkers conveyed messages by telephone and radio in their native language, a code that was never broken by the Japanese.

Read more about how the Navajo Code Talkers helped win WWII.

Reporter Shondiin Silversmith covers Indigenous people and communities in Arizona. Reach her at ssilversmi@arizonarepublic.com and follow her Twitter @DiinSilversmith.

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