Navajo Code Talker to speak to public

Thomas Begay attended National Code Talker Day, Aug. 14, at Window Rock, Ariz.
Thomas Begay attended National Code Talker Day, Aug. 14, at Window Rock, Ariz.

When a friend suggested to Catherine Ritch that she write a book about the World War II Navajo Code Talkers, Ritch replied that she’d have to do a little research first.

“I didn’t know who they were,” she admitted.

Ritch, who writes historical novels, said that she needs to feel a connection to the subjects of her books. She began digging, learning about the Code Talkers’ invaluable contribution to the war effort. Using their native language, which the Navajo had once been forbidden from speaking by the U.S. government, they developed a code for transmitting military information that was never deciphered.

“I was immediately hooked,” she said.

In the past year or so, Ritch, who is director of music and children/youth at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Concord, traveled to New Mexico seven times to interview Code Talkers and their families for her upcoming book, “Voices of Victory: The Navajo Code Talkers.” Now she has arranged for one of them, Thomas H. Begay, 89, to speak at St. John’s Lutheran at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14. He will share his experiences from the war and answer questions.

Ritch met Begay on her sixth trip as she tried to track down all the surviving Code Talkers. It took some effort to find him. She first heard about Begay from Roy Hawthorne, vice president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, but had no way to contact him. Eventually she got a phone number and left a message requesting an interview. Three weeks later, Begay’s son contacted Ritch and the appointment was made.

I was immediately hooked.

Catherine Ritch, author of “Voices of Victory: The Navajo Code Talkers”

“It was almost like they had to send smoke signals, to tell each other this white woman was OK,” Ritch said, laughing.

When she and Begay finally met, they hit it off. She said, “He’s just a neat, neat person.”

Begay is exceptionally energetic, Ritch said. He sings, he dances, he recently appeared in a movie and he goes somewhere just about every weekend to speak publicly. Though most of her interviews with the Code Talkers lasted only about an hour due to their advanced ages and failing health, Begay talked with Ritch for five hours the first day they met, then spent more time with her the following day and at the Code Talkers Day celebration in August. In 1982, then-president Ronald Reagan declared Aug. 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day, an event that is celebrated annually in Window Rock, Ariz.

“He’s amazing,” Ritch said of the man she now refers to as her “Navajo grandpa.”

Begay served with the United States Marine Corp’s 5th Division at Iwo Jima where the Navajo Code Talkers worked for nearly 48 hours nonstop, sending more than 800 messages without a single error.

The code developed by the Navajo, based on their language, remains the only unbroken code ever used in modern military history. And, Ritch said, it was remarkably efficient. The Navajo Code Talkers could send a message in fewer than two minutes that would take the Americans hours to send.

There were initially 29 Navajo Code Talkers. That number climbed to the hundreds by the end of the war. The last of the original 29 died last year, and only 18 Code Talkers are still living.

Marcia Morris is a freelance writer:

Want to go?

Thomas Begay will be at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 100 St. Johns Church Road in Concord, at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14. His talk is free and open to the public. A reception will follow. Call St. John’s at 704-436-6081 for information.