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Navajo Code Talkers: A Guide to First-Person Narratives in the Veterans History Project

Biography of Navajo Code Talker Thomas Begay, together with a video recording of his oral history interview from the Veterans History Project archives.

Thomas H. Begay

Thomas Begay during his oral history interview in 2013

Unit: 5th Signal Company, 5th Marine Division; 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division
Dates of Service: September 1943 - July 1946
Battles / Campaigns: Iwo Jima

"I want to show you, I'm going to join the Marines, because I’m old enough!" (Video interview, 1:57)

Thomas Begay was born in a traditional hogan in a remote area near Two Wells, New Mexico in 1927. The exact date of his birth was not recorded. After attending boarding school in Fort Defiance, he persuaded a Marine Corps recruiter to allow him to enlist when he was most likely just sixteen years old, helped by the fact that—in Begay's words—"my age was flexible." Begay made it through the Code Talker training course, and was assigned to the Signal Company for the 5th Marine Division. Soon after turning eighteen, Begay found himself on the front lines in the midst of apocalyptic combat on Iwo Jima. He had been sent to the 27th Marines as a replacement for another Code Talker who had been killed in action. He remembers that two Code Talkers were killed and three more were wounded on the first day of the battle.

Begay was discharged from the Marines in 1946, but joined the Army a year later, where he worked as a communications specialist again, and also qualified as a paratrooper. With the Army, he again experienced intense combat with the 7th Infantry Division in Korea, including at the Chosin Reservoir in late 1950. His experiences in Korea persuaded him to finally leave the military in 1953.

After leaving the military, Thomas Begay went to work for the federal government, becoming a senior administrator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Navajo reservation. With the BIA, he worked as an employment assistance officer for many years, helping Navajos to find employment and education opportunities both on the reservation and off. Drawing inspirations from his time in the Marine Corps, he remarked "if I can be a Code Talker, any Navajo can go out and be anything." By the end of his career with the BIA, he was serving as Agency Superintendent of the Chinle Agency. He has been active in the Navajo Code Talkers Association, with whom he travels and speaks to the public, and has also written and performed many of his own songs in Navajo about World War II.

Oral History Interview

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