An American Hero

Navajo Code Talker Jerry Begay holds Congressional Medal of Honor      

Four years ago this Memorial Day, his family and friends bid farewell to an American hero. Until many years after World War II had ended, they’d had no idea of the service Jerry ClasChee Begay, Sr. performed for his country. Jerry didn’t talk much about it. He said, “They call us heroes, but the real heroes are the ones who didn’t come back.”

Jerry Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation, was born December 8, 1924 in Sheep Springs, New Mexico. Like other Indian children of that time, he was sent to boarding schools to be educated. He was forbidden to speak his native language and punished if he did. His daughter, Priscilla Coutu, said her father was a sophomore at Fort Wingate High School when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. People feared that the mainland would be next. Japanese troops had already landed in the Aleutians. Jerry and his schoolmates were eager to do what they could to protect the United States.

When Jerry heard from Marine recruiters about an elite group of Navajo Marines called “code talkers,” he signed up and was chosen as one of 400 Navajos for training in their secret communications program. They used a simple code based on Navajo words for everyday objects, each corresponding to a letter from the alphabet, to pass top-secret wartime messages. Because Navajo at that time was not a written language and only a very few non-Navajos were able to speak the language, the enemy was never able to decipher the code. These 400 code talkers and their ability to hide U.S. plans from the Japanese changed the outcomes of many engagements and saved uncounted lives.

Jerry was only 17 when he shipped out to the South Pacific with the Marines’ 2nd Division. They headed via New Zealand and New Caledonia for the atoll of Tarawa, (present-day Kiribati), approximately 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The Americans aimed to dislodge Japanese defenders from Tarawa and other far-flung outposts in the South Pacific before heading on to the Japanese mainland.

The atoll consists of a number of coral islets that stretch through the ocean like a hook, barely above the ocean’s surface. The largest, Betio, was less than three miles long and a half mile wide, but the Japanese had built an airstrip right down the center. Defending it were 4,700 troops. They were entrenched in pillboxes and bunkers connected by tunnels and surrounded by mines, barbed wire, and log barriers. Their commander, Admiral Shibasaki, boasted that even a million attackers fighting for one hundred years could not take Betio.

Shibasaki was almost right.

Jerry recalled how the battle for Tawara, one of WWII’s most brutal, began with a terrifying bombardment from the American ships, followed by wave after wave of planes loosing their bombs on the devastated island. The watching Marines cheered, thinking nothing could be left alive after such punishment. They found out how wrong they were when the landings began.

Their commanders’  first mistake was to send the assault boats in at low tide. When the boats ran aground on the coral reefs ringing the island, the assault teams were forced to scramble into small amphibious tractor boats, called amphtracks, for the remaining distance. Before they reached the shore, a murderous hail of machine-gun fire came from the Japanese defenders, who had hidden safely underground during the American bombardment. Some amphtracks reached the shore, then turned around to go back for more men. Some were knocked out right away. Floating bodies and wrecked vessels clogged the lagoon.

“I was with an amphtrack crew,” Jerry told his daughter. “Instead of landing on the beach, we hit the pier. Our amphtrack blew up and a lot of my friends were killed.” He swam out into the lagoon over and over, pulling men to shore.

Unable to land, some craft were forced to disgorge their men hundreds of yards from shore into water sometimes neck deep. While bullets rained about them, the Marines had to wade over razor-sharp coral while precious equipment, including radios like the one carried by Jerry Begay, were soaked and ruined. Some Japanese snipers swam out to wrecked craft and fired on the Americans from behind.

The merciless barrage of enemy fire pinned the men who made it to shore behind makeshift barricades.  Not until the next morning could reinforcements bring tanks and artillery. Then those on the beach were able to break out and attack the enemy entrenchments.

On the third day, Jerry and a pal were fighting from their foxhole when a Japanese sniper’s bullet missed the other man’s throat by a hair’s breadth and slammed into Jerry’s leg. It shattered his femur and he blacked out. When he woke up, he was on a ship headed for Hawaii and surgery. Doctors replaced the bits of bone with a metal rod. He had pain for the rest of his life, but after some months of healing, Jerry wanted to rejoin his division. The doctors wouldn’t release him. He received an honorable discharge and was sent home to convalesce.

He was only one of nearly 3,000 casualties suffered by the Marines in that battle. Nine hundred ninety of those Americans died. It was far worse for the Japanese soldiers, who went into battle vowing to fight to the death. Of the 4,700 defenders, only seventeen survived.

His daughter Priscilla knew parts of this history. She knew that Jerry had proposed to her mother, Ella, when he came home. He found work at the Phelps Dodge Copper Mining Company in Morenci, Arizona, where he remained for 33 years until retiring in 1982. Seven children were born to him and Ella.

As she grew up, Priscilla often saw him looking at his Marine yearbook. She knew he loved John Philips Sousa marches. Whenever he heard the “Star-Spangled Banner,” he removed his hat and stood at attention. But he kept his promise never to speak about the code talkers until the secret was released in 1968. Then he became part of the Navajo Code Talker Association and joined them in marching in parades. Still, he didn’t talk much about his service.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed August 14 as the official day to honor the Navajo code talkers for their bravery and for helping to save many American lives. And in July, 2011, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley proclaimed Aug. 14-19, 2011, as Navajo Nation Code Talkers Week.

Jerry C. Begay didn’t live to share in that celebration, but as one of the many children who were not allowed to speak their own language at school, he undoubtedly would have been pleased by something President Shelley said in the proclamation: “We are asking all our tribal members to give thanks to our warriors and to encourage families to teach our children to speak Navajo and carry on our language.” (Italics added)

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