Samuel Sandoval, among last WWII era Navajo Code Talkers, dies

Samuel Sandoval, one of the last remaining Navajo code talkers who transmitted messages using a code based on his native language during World War II, has died.

Sandoval died late Friday at a hospital in Shiprock, NM, his wife Malula said. He was 98.

Hundreds of Navajos were recruited from across the vast Navajo Nation to serve as code talkers with the US Marine Corps during the war. Only three survive today: Peter MacDonald, John Kinsel Sr., and Thomas H. Begay.

The Code Talkers took part in every attack the Marines conducted in the Pacific, flawlessly sending thousands of messages about Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics, and other communications crucial to the ultimate outcome of the war.

The code, based on the then-unwritten Navajo language, confounded Japanese military cryptologists and is believed to have helped end the war. About 540 Navajos served as Marines and about 400 of them were trained as code talkers.

Sandoval was on the Japanese island of Okinawa when he learned from another Navajo Code Talker that the Japanese had surrendered and relayed the message to higher-ups.

The Navajo men are celebrated annually on August 14th. Sandoval was looking forward to the upcoming celebrations and to seeing a museum being built near the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, Ariz. to honor the Code Talkers, his wife said.

“Sam always said, ‘I wanted my Navajo youth to learn, they need to know what we did and how that code was used and how it contributed to the world,'” his wife said. “That the Navajo language was powerful and our legacy will always carry on.”

Navajo Code Talker Samuel Sandoval wears medals and a red cap and yellow jacket.

Navajo code talker Samuel Sandoval in 2013.

(Sam Green/AP)

Sandoval was born in Nageezi near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after attending a Methodist school where he was discouraged from speaking Navajo. He helped recruit other Navajos from the school to serve as code talkers.

Sandoval served in five combat missions and was honorably discharged in 1946. The Code Talkers were under orders not to discuss their role—not during the war and not until their mission was finally declassified in 1968.

The roles later became an immense source of pride for Sandoval and his late brother, Merrill Sandoval, who was also a code talker. The two became talented speakers who always hailed their still-deployed Marines as heroes, not themselves, said Merrill Sandoval’s daughter Jeannie Sandoval.

“We were kids, all growing up, and we started hearing about the stories,” she said. “We were so proud of her.”

Sandoval was curious, always read the local newspapers and attended community, veterans, code talker and legislature meetings. Rooted in the Navajo way of life, he enjoyed traveling and sharing what he had learned, said one of his daughters, Karen John.

“It was ingrained in me from an early age to be part of the community,” she said. “He was really involved in a lot of things, some of which I couldn’t understand as a kid.”

Sandoval often told his story, which was chronicled in a book and documentary of the same name—Naz Bah Ei Bijei: Heart of a Warrior—at the Cortez Cultural Center in Cortez, Colorado. Sandoval’s lectures drew dozens of people, some of whom had been turned away for lack of space, said Rebecca Levy, executive director of the center.

“It was a great opportunity for people who understood how important the Navajo Code Talkers were to the outcome of the war to personally thank him,” Levy said.

Sandoval’s health has deteriorated in recent years, including a fall that broke his hip, Malula Sandoval said. His most recent trip was to New Orleans in June, where he received the American Spirit Award from the National World War II Museum, she said. MacDonald, Kinsel and Begay were also honored.

Sandoval and his wife met when he ran a drug abuse counseling center, and she was a secretary, she said. They were married 33 years. Sandoval has raised 11 children from previous marriages and in blended families, John said.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez said Sandoval will be remembered as a loving and brave man who defended his homeland with his sacred language.

“We are saddened by his passing, but his legacy will always live on in our hearts and minds,” Nez said in a statement. Samuel Sandoval, among last WWII era Navajo Code Talkers, dies

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