Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here


Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Navajo Code Talker Recalls Life Dedicated to Service and Sacrifice

Thomas H. Begay, 94, is one of four surviving Code Talkers

spinner image Thomas Begay speaks at the I R S
Photo Courtesy of the IRS

Since enlisting in the military at age 16 during World War II, Thomas H. Begay has dedicated his life to service and sacrifice for the United States.

The Navajo Code Talkers developed a coded Navajo language for radio communication in the Marine Corps. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Begay, who now lives in Window Rock, Arizona, transmitted hundreds of secret messages over the radio network.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

Japanese cryptographers never were able to break the code. Some 75 years later, the Code Talkers’ contributions still are revered for carrying the U.S. through World War II and the Korean War. Begay's stories from the line of duty offer a unique perspective to civilians and service members alike.

4 surviving Navajo Code Talkers from World War II

More than 400 Navajo men served as Code Talkers by the end of World War II. Today four are alive.

• Thomas H. Begay, 94, originally from Chichiltah, New Mexico
• John Kinsel Sr., 100, from Lukachukai, Arizona
• Peter MacDonald, 92, from Tuba City, Arizona
• Samuel F. Sandoval,
98, from Shiprock, New Mexico

"Veterans of all wars, I want to say, welcome home. Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan ... and today we still have many of our people serving to protect our country, to protect our freedom,” Begay said at a 2019 event honoring him.

All of Begay's children — three sons and a daughter — entered the service. His youngest was killed while deployed to Afghanistan.

"We all need help with the veteran services,” he said. “It's very hard to find the right person to help you, to rehabilitate you, from serious wounds that you have received during the combat."

Begay said he grew up knowing little English and didn't begin to fully learn the language until he enrolled in school at age 13.

He knew that he wanted to be in the military and was sent to Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego in Southern California, but he had not been aware of the secret program for Navajo speakers.

"I told the sergeant the day when I arrived in October 1943, ‘Sir, I didn't sign up to be a Code Talker, I don't want to be a Code Talker. I don't know Navajo that much,’” Begay said. “‘Too bad,’ he says. ‘You have no place to go.’”

Begay then realized that he had no alternative.

spinner image  Photograph of Navajo Indian Code Talkers Preston Toledo and Frank Toledo
Private First Class Preston Toledo (left) and Private First Class Frank Toledo, cousins and full-blooded Navajo Indians, attached to a Marine Artillery Regiment in the South Pacific with relay orders over a field radio in their native tongue.
National Archives

The Code Talker served on six combat missions before he was honorably discharged in 1953. He then served 40 years of federal service in the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"Many young men serving this area during the war, it is so hard,” Begay said. “Sometimes it makes you think back. A lot of things happen to our veterans."

His son R.C. Begay said the key to his father's success began by being raised in the Navajo Nation.

"He stuck to the basics of natural foods, hard work, being up early, just a basic way of life for a Navajo,” R.C. Begay said. “And I think that really helped him in the long run to navigate through life and who he is.”

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?