PHOENIX - Thomas H. Begay’s shirt blends in with those of nearly three dozen other Navajo men in gold and orange as they stare at a bronze statue of a crouched Marine holding a radio to his ear.
The bright colors signify that more 60 years ago, before their people had the right to vote, Begay and the others served as code talkers in World War II.
“I fought the Japanese with our Navajo language,” said Begay, who traveled from Albuquerque, N.M. “We used our language as a weapon.”
More than 100 people gathered Thursday at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza to dedicate a statue honoring the 400 Navajos whose exploits are celebrated in Marine Corps legend and the Hollywood film “Windtalkers.” They developed a code based on their language that the Japanese were unable to crack.
“We did something special,” said Begay, who fought on Iwo Jima.
The 16-foot-tall statue, designed by T. Barnabas Kane & Associates, a Prescott landscape architecture firm, was built entirely with money raised by the Navajo Code Talker Foundation. Its base carries plaques with code talkers’ names and a history of their service.
Navajo code talkers served in every major battle in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. Maj. Howard Connor, a Marine Corps signal officer, was quoted widely as saying, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
Their efforts went unrecognized for decades because of the value of their secret code. In 1992, the Pentagon officially recognized their contributions, and President Bush honored the code talkers in 2001.
Maxine Todecheenie came from the Navajo Nation community of Rough Rock to honor her late father, Frank Carl Todecheenie, tracing his name from one of the plaques and carrying a frame with pictures of him as a Marine and at age 80. It was a bittersweet moment, she said, because her father, who died five years ago, didn’t live to see it.
“I think the recognition should’ve taken place long ago,” Todecheenie said.
Joe Morris, who traveled from Barstow, Calif., reunited with some fellow code talkers he hadn’t seen in decades. He said he was happy to see their sacrifices honored.
“A lot of people didn’t really understand what the Code Talkers did,” Morris said. “But now that people understand … I really appreciate it.”
A Marine Corps band played several songs, including “Taps,” and Marines provided a 21-gun salute and color guard.
Cpl. Kevin Knight, a 21-year-old Marine from Lima, Ohio, said he learned about the code talkers during boot camp and was excited to meet them.
“There’s a sense of pride. What they did shaped the Marine Corps and now we have to live up to their expectations,” Knight said.
Before the ceremony, the code talkers assembled on the floor of the House of Representatives, receiving a written greeting from President Bush.
Ben Shelly, vice president of the Navajo Nation, thanked the code talkers for fighting for a country and a culture that wasn’t their own.
“They have made a significant and enduring contribution to the United States,” he said.
FACTS ABOUT STATUE HONORING NAVAJO CODE TALKERS
Here are some facts about the statue dedicated honoring Navajo code talkers:
LOCATION: Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix.
COST: Designed and constructed with $100,000 from the state and $200,000 raised by the Navajo Code Talker Foundation.
THE CODE TALKERS: More than 400 Navajos served as Marine Corps code talkers during World War II. While members of other tribes served as radio operators, speaking in their own languages, the Navajos created a code based on their language.
WHY NOW: The code talkers’ efforts went unrecognized for decades because of the value of their secret code. They began receiving recognition in 1992, when the Pentagon officially honored them.