FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — Samuel Sandoval, one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers to send messages using a code based on their native language during World War II, has died.
Sandoval died late Friday at a hospital in Shiprock, New Mexico, his wife, Malula, told The The Bharat Express News on Saturday. He was 98.
Hundreds of Navajos were recruited from the vast Navajo Nation to serve as Code Talkers with the US Marine Corps. Only three are alive today: Peter MacDonald, John Kinsel Sr. and Thomas H. Begay.
The Code Talkers took part in every attack the Marines carried out in the Pacific, sending without error thousands of messages about Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics, and other communications critical to the ultimate outcome of the war. The code, based on the then-unwritten Navajo language, confused Japanese military cryptologists and is credited with helping the US win the war.
Samuel Sandoval was on Okinawa when he heard from another Navajo Code Talker that the Japanese had surrendered and passed the message on to higher circles. He had a close call on the island, which brought up painful memories that he kept to himself, Malula Sandoval said.
The Navajo Men are celebrated annually on August 14. Looking forward to that date, Samuel Sandoval saw a museum built near the Navajo Nation capital Window Rock to honor the Code Talkers, she said.
“Sam always said, ‘I wanted my Navajo youth to learn, to know what we were doing and how this code was used and how it contributed to the world,'” she said on Saturday. “That the Navajo language powerful and always to continue our legacy.”
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, expanding words and an alphabet an original group of 29 Navajos had created.
Sandoval took part in five battles and was honorably discharged in 1946. The Code Talkers were ordered not to discuss their role – not during the war and not before their mission was declassified in 1968.
The scrolls later became a huge 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 fellow Marines still in action as the heroes, not themselves, said Merrill Sandoval’s daughter, Jeannie Sandoval.
“We were kids, we all grew up and we started hearing the stories,” she said. “We were so proud of them, and there weren’t many brothers together.”
Sandoval was curious, always reading the local papers and attending community, veterans, Code Talker and legislative meetings. He enjoyed traveling and sharing what he learned, based on his Christian beliefs and the Navajo way of life, said one of his daughters, Karen John.
“It was ingrained in me early on to be part of the community,” she said. “He was really involved in a lot, some of which I couldn’t comprehend as a kid.”
Samuel Sandoval often told his story, chronicled in a book and documentary of the same name – “Naz Bah Ei Bijei: Heart of a Warrier” – at the Cortez Cultural Center in Cortez, Colorado. He had a favorite vinyl-covered folding chair there and took coffee black, said executive director Rebecca Levy.
Levy said Sandoval’s talks attracted dozens of people, some of whom had to be turned away due to space constraints.
“It was a great opportunity for people who understood how important the Navajo Code Talkers were to the outcome of the war, in our favor … to personally thank him,” Levy said.
Sandoval’s health has deteriorated in recent years, including a fall that broke a hip, Malula Sandoval said. His last 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 while he ran a drug abuse clinic, and she was a secretary, she said. They were married for 33 years. Sandoval raised 11 children from previous marriages and blended families, John said.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez said Sandoval will be remembered as a loving and courageous person who defended his homeland in his sacred language.
“We are saddened by his passing, but his legacy will live on in our hearts and minds forever,” Nez said in a statement.
Navajo Nation Council Chairman Seth Damon said Sandoval’s life was guided by character, courage, honor and integrity, and his impact will be remembered forever.
“May he rest among our most resilient warriors,” Damon said in a statement.
Funeral services are pending.