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A Navajo Code Talker and his veteran son reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Indigenous peoples overwhelmingly enlisted in the armed forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Among the 44,000 Native Americans that answered the call to service were about 400 Diné men, who used an unbreakable code based on their language to send encrypted messages during World War II.

They’re known as Navajo Code Talkers. Only three of them are left on this Memorial Day.

“Semper fi,” said the 98-year-old Navajo Code Talker Thomas Begay, as he recalled his Marine buddies, who were instrumental in winning the Battle of Iwo Jima. But most of all, he remembered their sacrifices.

“On Red Hill, a couple got shot, one by sniper,” added Begay. “One got hit by mortar.”

Nearly 7,000 U.S. troops died during Iwo Jima, and more than 65,000 service members were considered combat casualties in the Pacific Theater. In all, 13 Navajo Code Talkers were killed in action during World War II.

Begay’s eldest son, Ron, is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and sat beside him as he reflected on the federal holiday.

“He told me that he just wanted to let you know that they are in his thoughts on Memorial Day,” said Ron Begay, “and that it’s a patriotic day in a sense that we all need to remember those veterans that have fallen.”

“There really is no [Navajo] word for Memorial Day,” added 68-year-old Ron Begay. “It’s basically a saying to honor the warriors that have passed on in serving the people in any skirmish, or battle, or confrontation with whoever attacked the Navajos in that way.”

His father also fought in the Korean War, where about 37,000 U.S. troops lost their lives, including 194 Native Americans.

“It’s so sad to think,” said Thomas Begay, “what the world is doing to you.”

“But you made it,” added Ron Begay, “You’re here. You’re here.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.