Uncle Sam wanted Navajo boys, but Sam Sandoval was fresh out of a 12-year stint in a Methodist boarding school, where he had been instructed to never utter his native language.
At 18, Sandoval couldn’t figure out why U.S. military officials were lobbying so hard for him to join their ranks. As a Navajo, he had already been marked as a non-citizen when signing up for the Selective Service, and he was only trying to earn a living while building military ammunition storage igloos in Hawthorne, Nev. But recruiters wouldn’t stop knocking on his door.
“War is war, and it wasn’t bothering me,” said the 89-year-old decorated U.S. Marine Corps veteran. “I was hesitant to enlist, but I went to war to protect the United States and to honor the flag of the United States.”
Sandoval was one of 418 Navajo Code Talkers trained by the U.S. government to send, receive and confirm military communications on War World II Japanese battlefields. Secretive, speedy and accurate, Sandoval helped design and memorize the 813-word Navajo Code. It was not only faster and more reliable than Morse code, but more importantly, it couldn’t be broken by Japanese intelligence, he said.
“We were the first on land, and we were the first sent to the front lines, day and night,” recalled Sandoval, saying his heroes were the 13 fellow code talkers killed in action.
From March 26, 1943, to January 22, 1946, Sandoval served in the First Marine Division, including five Japanese combat missions at the Battle of Guadalcanal, Battle of Bougainville, Battle of Guam, Battle of Pelelui and Battle of Okinawa.
“Aug. 14, 1945, is a date I remember clearly,” Sandoval said. “That’s the day we heard that Japanese Imperial Forces had surrendered.”
Sandoval is decorated with a Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, China Service Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with a Silver Star - in lieu of five Bronze Stars, World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal with Asia Clasp, and Rifle Range, Sharp-Shooter and Pistol badges.
Upon returning to America, veteran code talkers were given orders to remain silent about their military service. Sandoval said he regrets never being able to tell his father, Julian Sandoval Jr., nor his mother, Helen, of his service before they passed away. And even with his younger brother, Merril, also a Navajo Code Talker, the two never spoke about the war.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared Aug. 14 as National Code Talker Day.
Still today, on the country’s largest sovereign nation of Native Americans, Sandoval receives stares from native speakers when talking the code. It remains unrecognizable and indiscernible even to his own people, he said.
“The Navajo Code, up to this very minute, has never been broken!” Sandoval proclaimed. “That’s my legacy.”
Sandoval, who lives in Shiprock, N.M., with his wife, Malula, was born in a hogan near Nageezi, N.M., on Oct. 24, 1923. His life has greatly been impacted by the wisdom and discipline shared by his great-grandfather, Hosteen Cly (a Navajo name meaning left-handed man), Sandoval said.
“He used to sing his songs, say his prayers and tell his stories,” Sandoval said. “He taught me what to do and not to do, say and think.”
Sandoval’s life adventure is the subject of an hour-long documentary to be screened in Cortez on Sunday, Aug. 11, at the American Legion on N. Harrison Street. The 7 p.m. film screening is sponsored by the Cortez Cultural Center.
“The Heart of a Warrior” was written, filmed and produced by students, faculty and staff at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan. Paul Kyle, dean of students services for the college, said officials discovered Sandoval while searching for a keynote speaker to address the school during its annual Veteran’s Day celebration.
Kyle said the school wanted to ensure the documentary was something that would honor Sandoval, the Code Talkers and the Navajo Nation. Also in the works is a book, because a 55-minute documentary cannot capture the vast amount of stories and information, he added.
“We believe the footage we have is very unique and has great educational and cultural value to the general public, for generations to come,” Kyle said.
Because of the decreasing number of Navajo Code Talkers, Sandoval said he agreed to participate in the documentary process to help preserve the Navajo Code Talkers’ story and service to America for future generations. Proceeds from the documentary will help fund a scholarship at Johnson County Community College.
“As the years pass, we have to do something for our children and our gran-children,” he said. “It’s up to me to help our children get an education. That’s my vision.”