Thomas H. Begay didn't want to be a radio operator. In fact, up until he graduated from bootcamp, he thought he was going to become an aerial gunner for the Marine Corps during World War II.
"They sent me to a confidential area," he said. "I walked in and there's a whole bunch of Navajo."
His previous MOS didn't matter. Begay would attend code talking school.
The Navajo language had become the basis of a new code, and they were going to train to become code talkers. It was hard to see it then, but Begay and his fellow Navajo would help turn the tides of war and save countless lives.
An unbreakable code
The Code Talkers used native languages to send military messages before World War II. Choctaw, for example, was successfully used during World War I. But the Marine Corps needed an "unbreakable" code for its island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. Navajo, which was unwritten and known by few outside the tribe, seemed to fit the Corps' requirements.
Twenty-nine Navajos were recruited to develop the code in 1942. They took their language and developed a "Type One Code" that assigned a Navajo word to each English letter. They also created special words for planes, ships and weapons.
But just because a person understood Navajo didn't mean they could understand the code. While a person fluent in the language would hear a message that translated into a list of words that seemingly had no connection to each other, a code talker would hear a very clear message.
Here is an example:
Navajo Code: DIBEH, AH-NAH, A-SHIN, BE, AH-DEEL-TAHI, D-AH, NA-AS-TSO-SI, THAN-ZIE, TLO-CHIN
Translation: SHEEP, EYES, NOSE, DEER, BLOW UP, TEA, MOUSE, TURKEY, ONION
Deciphered Code: SEND DEMOLITION TEAM TO …
In addition to being unbreakable, the new code also reduced the amount of time it took to transmit and receive secret messages. Because all 17 pages of the Navajo code were memorized, there was no need to encrypt and decipher messages with the aid of coding machines. So, instead of taking several minutes to send and receive one message, Navajo code talkers could send several messages within seconds. This made the Navajo code talker an important part of any Marine unit.
Begay did well in training and picked up the code quickly. A month after arriving at code talking school, he was given orders to his new unit and sent overseas.
"They told us we were going to Tokyo," he said with a chuckle. "In February, we were told we're supposed to land on Iwo Jima."
On Feb. 19, 1945, at 0900 hours, Begay landed on the north side of the island with the 5th Marine Division. One code talker had already been killed during the first wave of attacks, and five more would be injured by the time the fighting stopped. In the face of machine gun fire and mortar rounds, Begay and his fellow Navajo Code Talkers continued to relay messages that were vital to the eventual victory on the island.
In all, nearly 800 coded messages were sent during the assault on Iwo Jima. There were zero mistakes.
"I was protected by the Marines," Begay said. "They were protecting us; we were protecting them. I was lucky. But some didn't get lucky – like those who got killed on the beach."
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.