With his casket wrapped in an American flag, hundreds of people gathered inside the The Potter’s House Chinle Christian Center on a sunny day to honor Fleming Begaye Sr.
The church filled with praise and stories that celebrated Begaye’s life.
Begaye served as a Navajo Code Talker from 1943 to 1945. He fought in the Battle of Tarawa and Battle of Tinian and was later awarded the Congressional Silver Medal. He died May 10 at the age of 97.
Begaye was honored with a military funeral and burial Friday. His casket was brought into the church carried by seven Marines.
He was later buried in the family plot near his family farm in Salt Water Canyon, Arizona. During the burial, two soldiers folded the flag that covered his casket, while the others fired three shots in Begaye’s honor. Begaye’s daughter, Veronica Walter, was presented with the flag.
Begaye’s granddaughter, Theodosia Ott, said it was a hard day and that she’ll miss her grandpa’s hugs the most. But she said she was thankful for all the wonderful stories that were shared.
Three Navajo Code Talkers were present at the funeral: Thomas H. Begay, Samuel F. Sandoval and Peter MacDonald. There are only seven living Code Talkers.
MacDonald also shared stories about Begaye’s experiences as a Code Talker. One story was from when Begaye landed on the island of Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943.
Begaye’s landing craft was blown up before he reached the beach, MacDonald said, and he flew through the air before landing in the ocean. Begaye lost his helmet, backpack and rifle in the water. He picked up a helmet and rifle from a fallen comrade and rejoined his company.
Three days later, Begaye and others were searching the beach for wounded Marines. He found a foxhole with three Navajo Code Talkers in it, MacDonald said.
“I made a joke, he said, ‘I didn’t know Navajos live on this island,’” MacDonald said. “He was a very good storyteller with a good sense of humor.”
Sandoval didn’t talk during the funeral service, but afterward, in an interview with The Arizona Republic, he said he knew Begaye since 1943. They were a part of the second group of Navajo Code Talkers to enter the Marine Corps.
“There was 60 of us that went in together. He was one of them,” Sandoval said. “We went through basic training together, and that’s how I know him real well.”
The first group made up 200 words, he added. The second group made up more than 800 words.
“We stuck together the whole time,” Sandoval said. “I know all the boys that I went out with.”
Sandoval said Begaye was a kind man and recalled times he would stop by Begaye’s house to talk and visit his store after work.
“He was a very comical guy,” he said. “Never going to forget it.”
Navajo President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer, Second Lady Dottie Lizer and Navajo Nation Speaker Seth Damon attended the funeral service, each offering kind words about Begaye and to the family. They presented the family with a Navajo Nation Flag, a Pendleton blanket and the proclamation to have the flags flown half-staff on the Navajo Nation on May 17.
The Navajo Code Talkers have done and are doing great things for the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people, Nez said. “What a legacy.”
Always her cheii
For his granddaughter Theodosia Ott, Begaye will always be her cheii (Navajo for “grandpa”).
“It’s really hard coming through that door and not seeing him sitting here,” Ott said as she patted a cushion of the brown couch in Begaye’s living room. “That’s the hardest part for us because he always sat here and greeted us.”
“He was a very simple person. He didn’t like people to make a fuss out of him,” Ott said during an interview with The Republic at Begaye’s home in Chinle.
Ott said her grandfather would often come and stay at her home in Phoenix during winter because it was too cold for him on the Navajo Nation.
It was during one of those visits that she asked him if she could record a video of him singing the Marine’s Hymn in Navajo. He agreed, saying it would be good to do before he forgot all the words.
Navajo Code Talker Fleming Begaye Sr. sings the Marines’ Hymn on Feb. 1, 2018. Begaye died May 10, 2019.
Courtesy of the Fleming Begaye Sr. family
“He was just really sweet all the time,” Ott said.
Ott said Begaye suffered from PTSD from his time serving in the military.
He didn’t like to sleep in the bedroom, she said. He would only sleep on the couch in his own home or when he stayed with her. It was hard for him to watch movies about war, and he’d often request the movie be changed.
Sometimes at night he would have nightmares, Ott said, and the family would often sit with him until he felt better. She remembers one night at her house she sat on the floor next to him and rubbed his back until he woke up. Once he did, she said he would grab her hand.
“I didn’t want him to think that he was alone or to feel scared,” Ott said.
Begaye often told stories from his Code Talker days
Begaye enlisted on March 26, 1943, in Santa Fe, N.M., while he was still in boarding school in Fort Wingate, N.M., Ott said. While at school he heard that the U.S. Marine Corps was looking for Navajo men who spoke and understood the language. He had no idea they were going to be Code Talkers.
He did share stories from his time as a Code Talker, Ott said, although it wasn’t until she was around 12 or 13, when Ott thinks something happened that made him start talking about it more.
One story he often shared was about how he was saved from being shot in a foxhole by a Japanese soldier.
Begaye was Christian, and when he left for the war his high school girlfriend gave him a small, pocket-sized Bible to take with him. When he was surrounded inside a foxhole, Ott said he recalled turning around and seeing a Japanese soldier pointing his gun at him.
He got so scared he put his hand on the Bible in his pocket and prayed to be saved, Ott said, and he closed his eyes because he thought the soldier was going to shoot him.
After hearing a few gunshots, Ott said Begaye opened his eyes and saw the soldier fall over.
“These three men came running and said, ‘Are you alright, chief?'” Ott said, and they pulled him out of the foxhole. “He said that the biggest relief just came over him because he thought he was dead.”
Another story was how many of the Navajo Code Talkers would communicate, in Navajo, late at night on the radio when they were bored or lonely in their foxholes.
Often Japanese soldiers would listen to them, Ott said. Begaye said they would then start mimicking what they were saying in Navajo, which would make them all laugh.
He was thankful that he made it out of there, Ott said. Begaye was injured twice. He was hit in the back by shrapnel and shot on his side.
Ott said he didn’t remember what happened when he got shot, but he woke up in a medical facility in Germany for surgery. After surgery, he was transferred to Hawaii for rehabilitation. After his rehabilitation, he returned home.
After returning from the war, Ott said her grandfather reunited with his high school girlfriend, Helen, who waited for him while he was fighting in the war. The two married in August 1945 and had three children. Ott’s mother, Veronica Walter, is the only surviving child. Begaye has seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Ott said her grandmother didn’t like to openly show affection in the couple’s relationship, but everyone knew that she loved him.
“The way I knew that she loved him is that she always made him stay by her side during the last four years of her life,” she said. Her grandmother died in 2008 at the age of 84.
She had a hospital bed set up in the living room of the home, and Ott said her grandfather slept right by her every night.
“She always needed him right there by her side,” Ott said. She remembers how her grandmother was in the bed, and she would often put out her hand reaching for her husband. When he wasn’t within her reach, she’d use a stick next to her bed to nudge him.
Begaye’s corner and a Tódókosh farmer
Growing up, Ott remembers her grandfather as a reserved man, but a hard worker. He worked as a counselor at a boarding school in Nazhlini, Arizona, and it was there that he got the idea to open a gas station in Chinle.
“He really just put Chinle on the market, there was nothing out here,” Ott said.
It was a 24-by-24 shack, she said of the store, and they set up a gas pump. At night, there would be people driving through and ring the bell, turn on the switch and gas up. They’d often leave the money on the pump.
It eventually evolved into what became known as Begaye’s corner, which had a large two-story building with offices, a car repair shop and a gas station.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs named Begaye small businessman of the year in 1970, Ott said, and he really enjoyed being a businessman. The store closed in the late 1980s.
Begaye was also a great farmer, Ott said. The family has a farm in an area known as Tódókosh, east of Many Farms, Arizona. The farm has over 65 fruit trees, including apple, peach, plum, pear, apricot and cherry.
“The whole area was always clean. I don’t know how he did it,” she said. “It was like his job. He’d always be out here.”
Begaye stopped working on the farm 10 to 15 years ago, and now it’s managed by the family, but Ott’s sister Terry Oliver stays on the farm tending to the trees, cattle and chickens.
Ott’s brother, Trent Nez, took care of Begaye and lived with him for the past five years. Just before he passed away, Nez said his grandfather asked him to plant a tree for each year he was alive.
“So, I’ll be planting 97 trees,” he said.
He’ll also be planting a tree for each year his grandmother lived, per his grandfather’s request.
Nez and Ott learned everything about planting and tending to the farm from their grandfather. They grew up spending their summers on the farm, working, planting, playing in the trees along the wash and eating the fruit off the trees.
Nez said he remembers his grandfather often took an apple from the tree and used his knife to peel off the skin.
“When you got that peeled apple, you felt special.”