Sam Sandoval, the last surviving Navajo Code Talker from Shiprock, has much to say about his life, his tribe and justice.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sandoval said, he enlisted to fight for two nations: the Navajo Nation and the United States. Sandoval, 93, visited Cortez on Monday for a screening of a film about his life, “Naz Bah Ei Bijei: Heart of a Warrior.”
A crowd of people that waited outside was turned away as the theater filled.
The film tells the story of Sandoval’s upbringing, which was influenced heavily by his great-grandfather. He instilled in him a great sense of hard work and justice.
“He would wake me as the sun was rising and say, ‘Do not sleep when the sun rises or else poverty will follow your life,’” Sandoval said in the film.
His great-grandfather also told Sandoval stories of the Trail of Tears and the struggles that Navajos had experienced.
“Tonight, I am greatly honored to be here,” Sandoval said. “And to answer the question, why did I go to war? To protect the United States and our freedom of religion, to protect the Navajo Nation as a nation of our own, but above all why I went to war: to get the natives of each island that I went to and liberate them from slavery or whatever hardship be had under the Japanese rule.”
Much of the film’s footage was compiled by his wife, Malula Sandoval.
“I collected all these photos and motion pictures,” Malula Sandoval said. “I decided this is what I want to leave for my husband, and I achieved it, and I am grateful that you have seen it.”
Sandoval explained how the United States was having problems communicating without the Japanese breaking their codes. Philip Johnston, who had grown up playing with Navajo children, came up with the idea of using the Navajo language to transmit military communications.
In 1942, the first all-Navajo platoon reported to Camp Elliot in San Diego, a training center for the Marines Corps.
“When we got there (to the base), there were Navajo boys in there, and we asked them what they were doing,” Sandoval said. “They said, ‘We’re making a code.’”
The film cites testing done by the U.S. military of Navajo code against Morse code. The same message that took an hour to be transmitted by Morse code took only 30 seconds by Navajo Code Talkers. The code has yet to be broken.
“Many have tried throughout the world to break that code, Sandoval said. “No one can. Well, you’re looking at one.”
Sandoval was a Code Talker during five combat tours in the South Pacific, including the islands of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Pelelui, Guam and Okinawa.
The first group of Code Talkers arrived at Guadalcanal on Sept. 18.
Each Code Talker was to be constantly accompanied by a bodyguard. Sandoval told a story of a fellow soldier who was always around him and carried a pistol, a weapon issued only to those of higher rank.
“I finally asked why he had a pistol and why he was always around me, and my sergeant said, ‘Sam, if you get captured, that pistol is for you.’”
The service that the Navajos provided was so valuable to the United States in World War II that captured Code Talkers were to be killed in order to keep the code from the enemy. He also recalled perhaps the biggest message of all, which he received on Aug. 14, 1945. “I took a message from another Code Talker,” Sandoval said. “He said, ‘The Japanese Imperial Forces have surrendered.’”
When the Navajo Code Talkers were allowed to go home, they were told never to speak of their service. After returning home, he went about a normal life. He received his education as a substance abuse counselor and opened a clinic, where he met his wife, Malulu, an administrator. His life as a Code Talker was secreted into the past.
However, in 1968, word was sent to tribe officials that they were allowed to talk about their time as Code Talkers. Since then, Sandoval has dedicated himself to spreading the story the Code Talkers’ service.