Samuel Sandoval, a WWII-era Navajo Code speaker, dies

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

His wife, Malula, said Sandoval died late Friday at a hospital in Sherbrooke. He was 98 years old.

Hundreds of Navajo personnel were recruited from the vast Navajo region to serve as code spokes for the United States Marine Corps during the war. Only three of them are still alive: Peter MacDonald, John Kinsell Sr., and Thomas H. Pegay.

Code-speakers participated in every attack by the Marines in the Pacific, flawlessly sending thousands of messages regarding Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics, and other communications critical to the war’s ultimate outcome.

This code, which is based on the then unwritten Navajo language, confused Japanese military cryptologists, and is credited with helping to end the war. About 540 Navajos served in the Marines and nearly 400 of them were trained to speak blades.

Sandoval was on the Japanese island of Okinawa when he received word from another Navajo code-speaker that the Japanese had surrendered and passed the message on to senior officials.

Navajo men are celebrated annually on August 14. Sandoval was looking forward to the upcoming festivities and seeing a museum built near Window Rock, the Navajo state capital in Arizona, to honor blade-speakers, his wife said.

Sam always said, ‘I wanted young Navajo kids to learn. “They need to know what we did and how this symbol was used and how it contributed to the world,” his wife said. “That Navajo language has been strong and always to carry on our legacy.”

Navajo coding speaker Samuel Sandoval in 2013.

(Sam Greene/The Associated Press)

Sandoval was born in Nageze near Chaco Cultural National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico. He joined the Marine Corps after attending a Methodist school where he was discouraged from speaking the Navajo language. He helped recruit other Navajos from the school to serve as code speakers.

Sandoval served five combat tours and was honorably discharged in 1946. Code spokesmen were under orders not to discuss their roles—not during the war nor until their mission was finally declassified in 1968.

The roles later became a source of great pride for Sandoval and his late brother Meryl Sandoval, who was also a cipher speaker. Jenny Sandoval, daughter of Meryl Sandoval, said the two have become talented speakers who always praise fellow Marines who are still serving as the heroes, not themselves.

“We were kids, we all grew up and started hearing about stories,” she said. “We were proud of them.”

Curious, Sandoval would always read the local papers and attend community and veteran meetings, code speakers, and legislative meetings. One of his daughters, Karen John, said he enjoyed traveling and sharing what he learned, rooted in the Navajo lifestyle.

“I was impressed early on by being part of the community,” she said. “He was really involved in a lot, some of which I couldn’t understand as a kid.”

Sandoval often told his story, which is chronicled in a book and documentary of the same name – “Nas Bah-e-Biji: Heart of a Warrior” – at the Cortez Cultural Center in Cortez, Colorado. Sandoval’s talks attracted dozens of people, some of whom were rejected due to space limitations, Rebecca Levy, the center’s executive director, said.

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

Malola Sandoval said Sandoval’s health has been deteriorating in recent years, including a fall in his hip joint. 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, Kinsale and PJ were also honored.

Sandoval and his wife said they met while he ran a substance abuse counseling clinic and she was a secretary. They were married for 33 years. John said Sandoval has raised 11 children from previous marriages and in mixed families.

Navajo President Jonathan Neese said Sandoval will be remembered as a loving and brave person who defended his homeland using his sacred language.

“We are saddened by his passing, but his legacy will live on in our hearts and minds,” Ness said in a statement.

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