One of the Last Navajo Code Talkers Recalls Their Heroism in WWII
By Wes O’Donnell, Veteran U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force. Managing Editor, InMilitary.com.
Many Americans remain unaware of the major contributions Native Americans made to our nation’s armed forces. Statistically, American Indians serve in their country’s armed forces in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group, and they have served with distinction in every major conflict for over 150 years.
In the 1950s, the Department of Defense stated that during WWII, “if the entire population had enlisted at the same rate as American Indians did, the draft would have been unnecessary.” According to the Selective Service in 1942, at least 99 percent of all eligible Indians registered for the draft. That is the very definition of patriotism and the warrior ethos.
Perhaps best known among these warriors are the Native American Code Talkers, who served with honor – primarily Cherokee and Choctaw in World War I and the Navajo in World War II.
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with one of the last surviving Navajo Code Talkers.
Peter MacDonald is the only four-term chairman of the Navajo Tribe, located in the Southwest United States. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and became part of an elite group of Navajo Marines who served the country as language code talkers in the South Pacific. The Japanese were never able to break the code, giving the U.S. a decisive advantage.
InMilitary: Thank you for joining us, Mr. MacDonald, and thank you for your time.
Peter MacDonald: My pleasure. My name is Peter MacDonald, but that’s not my Navajo name. When my mother placed me in federal boarding school at age six, they couldn’t say my Navajo name. They couldn’t spell it. So they reached down in a basket full of names and pulled up a name: Peter.
When they asked my mother what my surname was, she said that we all only have one name. They asked what my grandfather’s name was. They couldn’t say it or spell it either, but to them it sounded like Donald. So my first name was Peter Donald.
When I was in second or third grade, I remember the kids singing “Ole MacDonald had a farm” and it stuck in my head. At age 12, I applied for my Social Security card. When they asked me what my name was, I said Peter MacDonald. This is the name I use today.
IM: Sadly, many Americans were introduced to the Navajo Code through the Hollywood movie “Windtalkers.” I suspect that it wasn’t the most accurate representation?
PM: [Gives a hearty laugh] “Windtalkers” was a two-hour movie about Nicholas Cage, not Navajo Code Talkers! There were some good elements. It was a fine war movie. The producers used some great Native American actors.
The real Navajo code that the United States Marine Corps used, and that we invented, was never broken. The Japanese were breaking every code that we used in the Pacific until the Marine Corps and Navy implemented our Navajo Code.
IM: When did you join the Marine Corps?
PM: I joined the Marines at the age of 15 in early 1944, served until 1946 and came out as a corporal. None of us Navajo could be rated above corporal, no matter how good we were.
Why? Because if you become rated as sergeant or higher, you have other responsibilities like leading platoons or other units. They didn’t want us to do that. They just wanted us to handle all the communication between HQ and field units and between field units and other field units.
IM: There are many wonderful Indian nations; how did the Navajo get picked to develop a code?
PM: The Marine Corps reviewed several tribes. But it began with a man named Phillip Johnson in February 1942. Phillip Johnson was not a Navajo, but he was raised at the Navajo Nation. His parents came to the Navajo Nation in early 1900, when he was just a boy. And while his parents were off doing missionary work, he played with Navajo children.
As a result, he became very familiar with Navajo culture and began to speak the Navajo language. Phillip then went on to serve in World War I as an officer.
When he returned from the war, he got a job in San Diego. That was where he learned about the difficulty that the Marines were having with their codes being broken by the Japanese. He made the suggestion to the Marines to consider the Navajo language for a code. Navajo was chosen over other tribes, because not many people knew how to speak Navajo compared to other Indian Nations’ languages.
Also, out of all the Indian tribes that were assembled at that time, the Navajo had the most young, able-bodied men that the Marines could pull from. This was important because of attrition; if some Navajo Marines were killed, the code needed to keep going.
IM: Was there ever any consideration of Navajo Code Talkers being used in Europe against Germany?
PM: The United States Marine Corps asked the Army fighting in Europe if they needed a code that could not be broken. The U.S. Army answered that they didn’t need it, because the Germans had not broken the traditional code that the Allies were using.
IM: What about discrimination? Were you treated poorly because of your heritage?
There were one or two times that we were captured by our own people, because the color of our skin made us look Japanese. Sometimes, our radios would malfunction and we would have to run from the front lines to the rear HQ with a message.
It was at these times that they would hold us at gun point and interrogate us. The higher-ups quickly realized that they needed to send a blond-haired, blue-eyed Marine to accompany us on those runs.
IM: You mentioned that you were 15 when you joined. What was the typical age of a Code Talker?
PM: There were two or three of us that were very young, 15 or 16 years old. Of course, 17 was the legal age. Like many soldiers and sailors from all over the United States, we were eager to get into the fight.
When I went to New Mexico to register, the clerk asked me what my age was. I told him 17. He then asked to see my birth certificate and I told him that as Navajo, we were not born in a hospital at that time and that I had no birth certificate. That’s how I got in at 15.
IM: Some companions that accompanied you in the field were instructed to kill you in the event that you were overrun by the Japanese. The idea was to prevent the Navajo code from falling into enemy hands. Were you aware of this at the time?
PM: No, we didn’t find out until much later, after the war. We thought they were there to protect us, and they were. But they also had more grim instructions should we get overrun.
IM: After the war, could you talk about what you did?
PM: The code was declassified in 1968. Until then, all we could say that we did was that we were radiomen. When our family would ask what we did during the war, we just told them that we talked on the radio. Now, we have established the Navajo Code Talkers Association.
IM: How many Navajo Code Talkers are left from World War II?
PM: There are 13 of us left. On average, we lose three Code Talkers per year. This is why it’s so important to spread the word of the Code Talkers’ legacy. In addition, we are currently in the process of building a Navajo Code Talkers museum on land that was recently donated by Chevron.
IM: How can people help raise money for the construction of this museum?
PM: Every little bit helps. Currently, I am selling a book called Navajo Weapon, signed by me, for $45 at my website petermacdonaldsr.com.
Senator John McCain has also expressed interest in helping us achieve our goal through legislation. I cannot express how hugely important this museum is to educate future Americans about the Navajo Code Talkers’ role in history.
IM: Thank you so much for your time. It was an incredible honor to have spoken to you.
In 2001, President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 Code Talkers during a ceremony. You can find out more about the Code Talker Museum at http://www.petermacdonaldsr.com.