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One of the few remaining WWII Navajo code talkers has died
The diminishing ranks of indigenous code talkers who helped the U.S. and Allies win World War II have decreased by one more with the death of Fleming Begaye Sr., who died on Friday.
He was 97.
Born Aug. 26, 1921, Begaye was Tódích'íi'nii (Bitter Water Clan) and born for Kinlichii'nii (Red House People Clan) in the community of Red Valley, Arizona, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer said in a Facebook announcement.
He lived in Chinle, Arizona.
"The Navajo Nation has lost another brave and selfless Diné warrior, who sacrificed more than we'll ever know to defend our country," Nez said. "We offer our heartfelt appreciation to the family for sharing his life with us. May the Creator bless you and your family with strength and comfort."
He was among 400 or so Navajo warriors who served over the course of World War II, according to the National Museum of the American Indian.
"The Navajo Code Talkers participated in all assaults the U.S. Marines led in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima," The Arizona Republic recounted last July. "The Code Talkers conveyed messages by telephone and radio in their native language, a code that was never broken by the Japanese."
n this Monday, Nov. 27, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump meets with Navajo Code Talkers, Fleming Begaye Sr., seated and Thomas Begay, center, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. World War II-era Navajo Code Talker Fleming Begaye, Sr., passed away on Friday, May 10, 2019. (Associated Press/Susan Walsh)
Begay served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1943 to 1945, fighting in the Battle of Tarawa and the Batter of Tinian. He spent a year in a naval hospital recovering from war wounds, the statement said.
"Code Talker Begaye was a warrior, a family man, and a business man. In every aspect of his life, he was a loving person who cared greatly for his people," said Lizer. "Today, I ask our Diné people to keep his spirit and his family in your prayers as we give thanks for his life and his legacy."
After the war he returned to the Navajo Nation and operated Begaye's Corner, a trading post in Chinle. He was pre-deceased by his wife, Helen M. Begaye, who walked on in 2008, and two of his three children.
"Every decision I made, I really had to run it by him because he always gave the best advice," his granddaughter, Theodosia Ott, told The Arizona Republic. "He was always a person that would give you the last penny he had in his pocket."
Funeral services are scheduled for May 17, The Arizona Republic reported.
Begaye and the other Code Talkers were forbidden from talking about their World War II experience until the program was declassified in 1968, The Arizona Republic noted.
He and two other Code Talkers were honored at the White House by President Trump in 2017.
"Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to the Navajo Code Talkers, whose bravery, skill & tenacity helped secure our decisive victory over tyranny & oppression during WWII," Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, tweeted at the time, according to the Associated Press.
Begaye told his granddaughter he would not have changed his service.
"There was no other choice," Ott said her grandfather told her, according to The Arizona Republic. "We had to make sure that everyone in the U.S. was safe."
©2019 New York Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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It was 10 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2018, when the phone rang in Navy Cmdr. Bryce Benson's home tucked into a wooded corner of Northern Virginia.
Benson had just gotten into bed, and his chest tightened as he saw the number was from Japan. It was his Navy attorney calling. The lawyer said he wished he had better news, but he'd get right to the point: The Navy was going to charge Benson with negligent homicide the following day.
Benson, 40, stared at the ceiling in the dark, repeating the serenity prayer as his feet pedaled with anxiety. Next to him, his wife, Alex, who'd followed him through 11 postings while raising three kids, sobbed.
Seven months earlier, Benson had been in command of the destroyer the USS Fitzgerald when it collided with a massive civilian cargo ship off the coast of Japan, ripping open the warship's side. Seven of his sailors drowned, and Benson was almost crushed to death in his cabin. It was then the deadliest maritime accident in modern Navy history.
Benson, who'd served for 18 years, accepted full responsibility. Two months after the crash, the commander of the Pacific fleet fired Benson as captain and gave him a letter of reprimand, each act virtually guaranteeing he'd never be promoted and would have to leave the service far earlier than planned. His career was essentially over.
Then, days later, another of the fleet's destroyers, the USS John S. McCain, collided with a civilian tanker, killing 10 more sailors. The back-to-back collisions exposed the Navy to bruising questions about the worthiness of its ships and the competency of the crews. Angry lawmakers had summoned the top naval officer, Adm. John Richardson, to the Hill.
Under sustained fire, Navy leaders needed a grand, mollifying gesture. So, in a nearly unprecedented move in its history, the Navy decided to treat an accident at sea as a case of manslaughter. Hastily cobbling together charges, the Navy's top brass announced — to the shock of its officers — that the captains of both destroyers would be court-martialed for the sailors' deaths.
The Navy told ProPublica that “given the tragic loss of life, scope and complexity of both collisions," it had an “obligation to exercise due diligence" and its investigation had “informed charges against" Benson and the captain of the McCain.
To many officers, the Navy had gone too far. “There was a deflection campaign," one admiral said recently, likening the Navy's response to shielding itself from an exploding grenade. “It was pretty clear Richardson wanted to dampen the frag pattern."
Even then, no one, least of all Benson, could have predicted how relentless the Navy's pursuit of him would be.