MAXTON — Thomas Begay, a Navajo code talker who transmitted hundreds of secret messages to Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima, shared his life story with members of Prospect United Methodist Church on Sunday.
Begay was one of 33 members of the Navajo tribe assigned to the 5th Marine Division Signal Company during World War II. Using a code derived from their native language, the team shared intelligence with troops over the radio.
The veteran’s appearance was arranged by Native American Cooperative Ministry, an organization that supports Prospect United Methodist and a dozen other American Indian churches across Robeson, Cumberland and Sampson counties
“This is part of our contribution to the community to have some history in our local churches on Native Americans,” said Pamela Baker, the cooperative’s ministry coordinator. “This gentleman goes around all over the country and speaks about his time as a World War veteran. We’re very excited about him coming.”
Begay and his fellow Navajo code talkers stumped Japanese cryptographers and played a crucial role in America’s victory at Iwo Jima.
“During the first 48 hours while we were landing and consolidating our shore positions, I had six Navajo radio networks operating around the clock,” wrote Maj. Howard M. Conner, signal officer for the 5th Marine Division. “In that period alone, they sent and received over 800 messages without an error. Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima and won the war.”
Begay was honorably discharged from the Marines as a lance corporal in 1946. The New Mexico native later joined the 7th Infantry Division and fought in the Korean War. His Army career ended with another honorable discharge in 1953.
The heavily decorated 89-year-old has received numerous citations and Bronze Stars. President George W. Bush presented Begay with a Congressional Medal in 2001.
Baker says the veteran’s visit to Maxton gave churchgoers a chance to observe both Native American History Month and the recently passed Veterans Day.
“Prospect United is the largest Native American United Methodist Church in the country,” Baker said. “It is a very, very strong community church and they’re very involved with outreach programs. It really is our mother church.”
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