Samuel Sandoval, one of the last remaining Navajo ciphers who transmitted messages during World War II using a code based on their native language, has died.
Sandoval died late Friday at a Shiprock, New Mexico hospital, his wife Malula said. He was 98 years old.
Hundreds of Navajos were recruited from the vast Navajo Nation to serve as cryptographers in the United States Marine Corps during the war. Only three survived: Peter MacDonald, John Kinsell Sr. and Thomas H. Begay.
Cryptographers took part in every Marine assault in the Pacific, sending out thousands of unmistakable messages about Japanese troop movements, battle tactics, and other communications critical to the final outcome of the war.
The code, based on the then unwritten Navajo language, puzzled Japanese military cryptologists and is credited with helping to end the war. Approximately 540 Navajos served in the Marine Corps, and approximately 400 of them were trained as coders.
Sandoval was on the Japanese island of Okinawa when he received word from another Navajo cipher clerk that the Japanese had surrendered and relayed the message to his superiors.
The Navajo Men are celebrated annually on August 1st. 14. According to his wife, Sandoval was looking forward to the upcoming celebrations and a visit to the museum built near the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Arizona, in honor of the speakers of the code.
“Sam always said, “I wanted my Navajo kids to learn. They need to know what we have done, how this code has been used and how it has contributed to the world,” his wife said. “That the Navajo language was powerful and will always carry our legacy.”
Sandoval was born in Nagizi near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after attending a Methodist school where he was discouraged from speaking Navajo. He helped recruit other Navajos from the school to speak code.
Sandoval served five sorties and was honorably discharged in 1946. The cryptographers were under orders not to discuss their role, not during the war, not until their mission was finally declassified in 1968.
These roles later became a huge source of pride for Sandoval and his late brother Merrill Sandoval, who was also a cipher clerk. The two became gifted speakers who always hailed their fellow Marines still in action as heroes rather than themselves, Merrill Sandoval’s daughter, Jeannie Sandoval, said.
“We were kids, everyone was growing up, and we started hearing stories,” she said. “We were so proud of them.”
Sandoval was curious, always reading the local papers and attending community, veterans, cipher clerk, and legislature meetings. According to one of his daughters, Karen John, he enjoyed traveling and sharing his knowledge based on the Navajo lifestyle.
“I was ingrained in me early on to be part of the community,” she said. “He was really involved in a lot of things, some of which I couldn’t understand as a kid.”
Sandoval often told his story, recounted in the book of the same name and the documentary Naz Bach Hey Bijay: The Heart of a Warrior, at the Cortez Cultural Center in Cortez, Colorado. According to Rebecca Levy, the center’s executive director, Sandoval’s performances were attended by dozens of people, some of whom had to be turned away due to lack of space.
“It was a great opportunity for people who understood how important the Navajo coders were to the outcome of the war to personally thank him,” Levy said.
According to Malula Sandoval, Sandoval’s health has been deteriorating in recent years, including after a fall that broke his hip. 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, Kinsel and Begay were also honored.
She said Sandoval and his wife met when he ran a drug counseling clinic and she worked as a secretary. They were married for 33 years. According to John, Sandoval raised 11 children from previous marriages and in blended families.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez said Sandoval will be remembered as a loving and courageous man who defended his homeland using his sacred language.
“We are saddened by his passing, but his legacy will always live on in our hearts and minds,” Neza said in a statement.