Guidon bearer honors Navajo Code Talkers
By Colleen Keane, written for the Navajo Times
ALBUQUERQUE – Since the beginning of warfare, the guidon bearer has been the most visible soldier in any military formation.
“Where the guidon goes, so go the soldiers,” according to one online description.
The guidon bearer is the soldier who accompanies the unit’s commander carrying the guidon, which means guide in French. The guidon looks like a small flag or pennant that is mounted on a staff and heralds the insignia of the commander’s military unit.
On Sept. 23, during the first Southwest Regional Veterans Conference, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. P.J. James from Ganado, Ariz., was the guidon bearer for the Navajo Code Talkers.
James made it clear that the guidon is not a flag. At the conference, the guidon that James held extended high above his more than six feet of height –almost to the ceiling of the Isleta Casino and Resort where the three-day conference took place.
“It’s a guidon, a military unit marker,” he said.
“I am here to accompany Navajo Code Talker Thomas H. Begay. The two eagle feathers on the staff represent his service in World War II. I want people to recognize that,” James said as he held the guidon in strict military fashion next to Begay.
At noon on the second day of the conference, Judith Avila, the co-author of the book “Code Talker” with the late Chester Nez, brought attention to Nez’s and Begay’s military contributions, as well as code talkers from 33 other tribes across the country during her noon time talk.
“We need to keep the story of the code talkers alive,” she said, as she asked Begay to stand up and be recognized.
All eyes focused on him and the Navajo Code Talkers’ guidon.
“Mr. Begay was one of the code talkers who helped to expand the original code,” she informed the audience made up of about 300 Native American veterans from all branches of the military.
After the session, with James standing silently by holding the guidon, Begay said that he entered the Marines in September of 1943 during the midst of World War II. He said he was 17 years old at the time.
Once his commanding officers realized he was fluent in the Navajo language, Begay said he wasn’t given any choice on what his duties would be, which resulted in him becoming a member of the second group of Navajo Code Talkers.
In 1945, he said he was assigned to the 5th Marine Division, which fought in the battle of Iwo Jima in Japan.
“We (Navajo Code Talkers) sent 800 messages (during the battle) without making a mistake. My commanding officer said that if it wasn’t for Navajos, it would have been taken,” he explained.
“It is in the ‘Code Talker’ book,” he said.
By online accounts, World War II ended unofficially by September of 1945. Begay said that during his service, which also included the Korean War, he was deployed a total of six times. Since the 1980s, he said that he and his wife, Nina D. Begay, have traveled around the world telling people the story of the Navajo Code Talkers.
“We went back to Iwo Jima in 1995 then we went to Japan, England and Australia,” he said. “We gave talks at universities.”
Quietly singing the first stanza of the national anthem in Navajo, Begay said that his wife performed the song at a major league athletic event in Chicago.
“We did a lot of programs including ‘Good Morning America,’” he added.
Begay said he is now 89 years old, maybe 90. “They didn’t write things down back then,” he said.
Begay mentioned that he plans to continue telling the story of the Navajo Code Talkers. During the conference, Cabinet Secretary Arthur Allison, Diné, one of the speakers, told the audience that all veterans have a story to tell and a legend to honor.
“As I look over this conference, you were there,” Allison said. “You were the ones who hit Normandy. You were the ones who climbed the cliffs in Italy and walked through the deserts of Northern Africa. “You were the ones who fought in the snowcapped hills of the mountains of China during the Korean War,” he said. “I take my hat off to all of you! I admire you all!”