Navajo Code Talker

Sam Sandoval one of 40 left from elite WWII unit

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Navajo Code Talker Sam Sandoval talks about his experiences in the war. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Navajo Code Talker Sam Sandoval talks about his experiences in the war.

At age 90, he’s still talking code — Navajo Code.

Sam Sandoval came to Cortez on Tuesday to speak in recognition of National Code Talker Day. He addressed a packed house at the Cortez Cultural Center, sharing memories from his early childhood, teenage years, and time spent in the U.S. Marine Corps.

It was his time in the Marine Corps where he was part of an elite unit known as the Navajo Code Talkers.

The program was initially classified top-secret. Speaking to the attentive crowd, Sandoval shared some of those former secrets.

“I’ve been here many times,” Sandoval said. “Tonight is a great day for me,” he said.

President Ronald Reagan declared Aug. 14 “National Code Talker Day” back in 1982.

Sandoval, who lives in Shiprock, N.M. with his wife Malula, described his childhood years growing up “in the boonies” east of the Navajo Nation.

“We raised livestock,” he said.

He remembers his great-grandfather and great-grandmother and notes that his grandfather died at age 109.

His grandfather was a medicine man and an “Indian warrior” who fought in New Mexico in the 1800s.

At age 3, Sandoval only knew the Navajo language. His grandfather would come and get him in the early morning hours and take him to his sweathouse a mile from his house.

“He would tell me stories of the origin of the Navajo Nation,” which Sandoval calls “mythology.

“He used to sing his song, say his prayers, and tell his stories. I told him one day, that’s for you, not for me,” he said. “He taught me what to do and not to do, say and think. I regret not listening to his stories.”

When Sandoval was 5 and enrolled in a boarding school run by the United Methodist Church near Farmington, N.M., the Navajo students were not allowed to speak their native tongue, but sometimes would sneak off to do so.

“The teachers were all Anglos. They were very kind and worked with us one-on-one,” Sandoval related.

A military future

In his late teens, Sandoval “wasn’t very inclined to join the military.”

Sandoval and his father moved to Las Vegas, Nev. and later to Hawthorne, Nev. His father told him there were no jobs in New Mexico.

“I was inexperienced in labor,” noting that he had to learn discipline, Sandoval said. “I’ve had to work through discipline all stages of my life through today.”

While in Hawthorne, Sandoval interacted with two military units that were stationed there, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

One day, a soldier said to him, “Why don’t you join the Marine Corps? The U.S. Marine Corps is the best outfit in the world.”

Sandoval wasn’t ready. He had already registered with Selective Service and had “two or three months before” his number would come up.

He decided to go to the recruiter but still wasn’t convinced to join.

“I went ready (to sign up) but was walking out the door when the recruiter stopped me.

He was asked “What nationality are you?” The Marines were recruiting Navajo men between the ages of 17 and 31 but they had to be fluent in both English and Navajo. The implementation of Navajo men into the military’s communications network came after a suggestion by Philip Johnston, a missionary’s son raised on the Navajo Reservation. This came as a result of the need for secure communications, particularly while in combat.

“I thought, ‘Why pick on the Navajos?’” Sandoval remembered. “There’s 500-plus other tribes.”

He related how his grandfather told him about the tragedy of the Navajo people and how they were treated.

“These people (Anglos) destroyed the homes of the Navajo people, their crops and drove them close to 400 miles. ‘The Long Walk’ we called it.” He feared that if he joined that the Marine Corps would take him somewhere and forget about him.

Sandoval and 11 other “Navajo boys” from the boarding school went to Santa Fe to take physicals. Sandoval remembers “Navajo boys” coming there “by the bus load.” Out of the 12 from his boarding school, eight passed the physical.

When he arrived at boot camp in San Diego, there were 29 Navajo Marines already in training.

The Japanese had been intercepting the U.S. communications, hence the need for more secretive messages.

“We were told to develop our own code,” Sandoval said. “It was very tedious, very difficult. There’s a difference between the everyday (Navajo) language and the Navajo Code,” he said.

A unique language

The Navajo language is not written and has no alphabet. As an example, they decided to use the Navajo word for “ant” to represent an “A.” This would be confusing to the Japanese, he said, because the Navajo word for ant starts with a “W.” He explained that for the question mark symbol, they used the Navajo word for “ear” because it’s shaped like a question mark.

He said the 26 letters in the English alaphabet were not enough. There are 63 in the Navajo Code alphabet. “We changed them in combat,” he said. The Navajo soldiers also developed 813 words as part of the code.

“We didn’t carry a dictionary in combat. It was all memory work.” They could spell out a word using letters, or use words.

All told, there were 418 Code Talkers trained for World War II, but only about 150 saw combat. Thirteen were killed in action.

Those 13 will not vanish from Sandoval’s memory.

“Those are my heroes,” he said. Some were his friends. Some were his relatives.

Sandoval was overseas for 30 months and stationed in Okinawa, Japan and four other places in the South Pacific.

For security, each Code Talker had a bodyguard. “My bodyguard carried a pistol. I carried a rifle. He did a good job, I guess,” he said smiling.

“That code has never been broken,” Sandoval said, “Who’s going to break it? It’s a secret.”

Sandoval said there are three elements to the code: Security (through a bodyguard), secrecy and accuracy.

The U.S. dropped the atomic bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, respectively. On Aug. 14, Sandoval received the message that imperial Japan had surrendered.

“I’m very thankful for you people honoring my day,” Sandoval said at the close of his talk Tuesday night. “Convey that message to your friends, your families, that you heard a Navajo Code Talker.”

Sandoval is one of only 40 Navajo Code Talkers alive today.

Afterward, Malula Sandoval, 51, was asked how her husband feels about younger Navajos not speaking the language. “It hurts him,” she said. “The parents are not teaching it or speaking it.”

Malula, who’s been married to Sam for 23 years, was taught the language while growing up in Shiprock. Most Navajos younger than 45 don’t speak the language, she said.

“The parents know it but are not speaking it” to their children. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the Navajos have implemented bilingual education on the Navajo Nation. But still, most of the children don’t speak Navajo, she said.

Sam Sandoval prepares to give his speech on the Navajo Code Talkers. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Sam Sandoval prepares to give his speech on the Navajo Code Talkers.

The book ‘Warriors, Navajo Code Talkers’ features Sam Sandoval and other Marines like him. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

The book ‘Warriors, Navajo Code Talkers’ features Sam Sandoval and other Marines like him.