Samuel Sandoval, one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers in the United States, passed away at 98 years old on Friday, July 9th.
Malula Sandoval told the Associated Press that her husband spent his last moments at a hospital in Shiprock, New Mexico.
Sandoval enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II, where he became one of the first 29 Navajo Code Talkers, taking part in five combat tours with his fellow Marines across the Pacific (including Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu, and Okinawa).
As a Code Talker, Sandoval had the special task of sending thousands of coded messages about Japanese troop movements and battlefield tactics in the Pacific. The code was based on his own native language of Navajo, which was then-unwritten, and it confounded Japanese military cryptologists at the time. The efforts of the Code Talkers, Sandoval included, are often credited as crucial to the war’s outcome. In total, there were 540 Navajos working with the Marines, and 400 of them were trained as Code Talkers.
With Sandoval’s passing, there are now 3 remaining Code Talkers still alive today: Peter MacDonald, John Kinsel Sr., and Thomas H. Begay.
“[He] will always be remembered as a loving and courageous person who sacrificed more than we will ever know to defend our homelands,” said President of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez. “His legacy will always live on in our hearts and minds.”
Sandoval’s life was fraught with adversity that he overcame time and time again. A New Mexico native, he grew up attending a Methodist school where he was discouraged to speak his mother tongue.
By 1943, Sandoval’s family lost the majority of their livestock as a direct result of the Navajo Livestock reduction program from the 1930s, a policy in which the US government culled the amount of grazing on Navajo Nation land by killing livestock owned by Navajo people.
Honorably discharged in 1946 and without livestock, Sandoval went to school, using scholarships he received from his service. He studied surveying and went to work on a surveying crew for a local oil company, according to a book and documentary about his life titled “Naz Bah Ei Bijei: The Heart of a Warrior.”
During this time, mental and emotional wounds from the war flared up, and he dealt with them alone. None of his family asked about his service, and as a Code Talker, he had strict orders not to speak about his role until their mission was declassified in 1968. Sandoval’s traditional Navajo upbringing further influenced his silence. He said the teachings he learned from his great-grandfather, a Navajo medicine man, included not to talk about “bad things like that.”
Sandoval turned to alcohol as a way to cope with the pain. In 1966, he decided to help people in his community who also struggled with substance abuse and addiction.
Sandoval said in the documentary, “I was determined to take the lessons learned from my own experiences and help people facing similar obstacles.”
He returned to college, earned a certificate in substance abuse counseling, and worked in the Farmington area as a counselor. He opened up his own clinic in the 1970s, To-Tah Alcohol Counseling, where he helped Navajo people struggling with substance abuse for over a decade. There, he met Malula while she was working as a secretary. They were married for 33 years, and they raised 11 children from previous marriages and blended families together, according to Karen John, one of his daughters. When Sandoval retired in the early 90s, his clinic closed down.
It wasn’t until he met Malula that he began to share his experiences in the war, and she soon started documenting his stories, chronicling them through journals, photos, and videos.
“What he shared with me, it’s in me, and I treasure that,” she said. His family has organized a GoFundMe account to pay for funeral expenses.
Sandoval received a swath of awards for his service, including a Congressional silver medal in 2001, a Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, and the 2022 American Spirit Award for Bravery from the National World War II Museum, to name a few.
“Sam always said, ‘I wanted my Navajo youngsters to learn. They need to know what we did and how this code was used and how it contributed to the world,’” said his wife. “That the Navajo language was powerful and always to continue carrying our legacy.”
As National Code Talkers Day on August 14th approaches, we take the time to remember Sandoval’s heroic legacy both in the military and as a civilian.