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    Fleming Begaye, Navajo code talker honored at White House, dies at 97

    NEW YORK — Fleming Begaye Sr., a Navajo code talker in World War II who was honored at a White House ceremony in 2017, during which President Trump mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry, died Friday in Chinle, Ariz. He was 97.

    His death was confirmed by his granddaughter Theodosia Ott.

    Mr. Begaye, born in Red Valley, Ariz., in 1921, was a student at a boarding school called Fort Wingate when he heard that the US military was looking for Navajo speakers, Ott said.

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    Mr. Begaye became one of more than 400 Navajo code talkers in the Marines. They were recruited to create top-secret coded messages so the military could safely communicate during battles and are credited with helping secure victory in the Pacific. While the Japanese were able to break other military codes, they never broke the Navajo code.

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    Mr. Begaye survived the Battle of Tarawa, a costly offensive on a Japanese-held Pacific atoll that took place in 1943. Out of 18,000 Marines who landed on Betio, more than 1,000 died.

    “His landing craft was blown up and he literally had to swim to the beach to survive,” Peter MacDonald, a former Navajo code talker, said of Mr. Begaye at the White House ceremony.

    Mr. Begaye landed on Tinian, one of the Mariana Islands, in 1944 and was “shot up real badly,” MacDonald said. Mr. Begaye then spent one year in a naval hospital.

    He served in the Marines from 1943 to 1945, according to a statement from the Navajo Nation’s president, Jonathan Nez, and vice president, Myron Lizer.

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    After returning to the United States, Mr. Begaye owned and operated a trading post in Chinle called Begaye’s Corner, where he lived with his wife, Helen Begaye, and three children. Helen Begaye died in 2008.

    The business began as a gas station, Ott said, and Mr. Begaye added a car repair shop, a cafe and a small grocery store. She said he later worked as a farmer, growing apple, cherry, and plum trees while raising cattle and sheep.

    For years, Mr. Begaye seldom discussed the war, Ott said. The Navajo code was not fully declassified until 1968, and many felt compelled to honor the order of secrecy even longer.

    Then, in the mid-1990s, he started opening up, Ott said.

    “I kept asking him, I saw these pictures of him in the war: ‘Where did you go? What happened to you?’ ” she said.

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    She said Mr. Begaye would tell “bits and pieces” of his story. Sometimes he would not want to talk, she said, but he relished one story of a Japanese man trying to mimic the Navajo code on the radio.

    “He was proud to serve his country,” Ott said. “He said, ‘It was already our country anyway; we were just helping to make sure it stayed our country.’ ”

    Mr. Begaye and two other former code talkers, MacDonald and Thomas Begay, were alongside Trump at the 2017 ceremony when the president derided Warren as “Pocahontas.”

    “You were here long before any of us were here,” Trump said to the veterans, who wore their uniforms for the occasion, along with turquoise and silver, hallmarks of Navajo culture. “Although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.”

    Trump was referring to Warren, D-Mass., a former Harvard Law School professor who came under fire in 2012 after it emerged that, during her academic career, she identified herself as a minority, citing Native American ancestry.

    Russell Begaye, former president of the Navajo Nation, said in 2017 that the president’s mention of Pocahontas was “derogatory” and “disrespectful to Indian nations.”

    Mr. Begaye and two other former code talkers, MacDonald and Thomas Begay, were alongside Trump at the 2017 ceremony when the president derided Warren as “Pocahontas.”

    Mr. Begaye and two other former code talkers, MacDonald and Thomas Begay, were alongside Trump at the 2017 ceremony when the president derided Warren as “Pocahontas.”

    In addition to Ott, Mr. Begaye is survived by his daughter, Veronica Walters; five other grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

    According to the Navajo Nation, only seven code talkers remain.