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Navajo code talker visits campus to discuss teenage years spent crafting and sending code

| Friday, November 15, 2019

Peter MacDonald Sr. was greeted by a standing ovation when he walked into Jordan Auditorium on Thursday afternoon. After serving as a Navajo code talker for the Marines during World War II, the welcome was much deserved. MacDonald, a recipient of the Congressional Silver Medal, spoke on campus about the code talkers’ unique legacy in the war.

Phillip Johnston, the son of missionaries who grew up on the Navajo reservation, was the first to suggest that the army create a code based on the unique language, MacDonald said. Originally, officers were against the idea.

“No. Don’t do that,” MacDonald said, quoting the Army higher-ups. “We don’t know these Indians. All we know is what we see in the movies. They yell and holler and run around their wagon train shooting arrows. This is not that kind of a war, so leave it alone.”

Johnston had a hard time getting officers to accept his proposal, MacDonald said. However, once they began training young Navajo men, he said, they did exceptionally well.

“At the end of base camp, each platoon camp is ranked,” he said, “and the Navajo platoon came up number one of all. Then the 29 young men went through combat training and they came out, all of them, either experts or sharp shooters.”

The men then had to develop the code, he said, by taking common Navajo words and assigning each one to English letters, numbers, some common words and even punctuation. By the end of June 1942, MacDonald said, they had created and memorized more than 260 code words — and they then began to put the code into action, which included recruiting 170 other men from the reservation, until there were just over 200 code talkers in the army.

“After that,” he said, “Navajo Code became the official United States military code to be used in every landing for all top secret, confidential messages. Messages they didn’t want the enemy to know went through the Navajo network.”

The code was especially essential when the U.S. took Iwo Jima, MacDonald said.

“We’re working 24 hours a day until the island is secured,” he said. “If we sent a message in English code, it would take 30 minutes. 30 minutes in English code, 20 seconds in Navajo code. Those guys who were fighting didn’t have 30 minutes. That’s why the Marines really loved the Navajo code. It was going through the air once every minute, non-stop, for 48 hours. Without Navajo, the Marines would never have taken the island of Iwo Jima.”

Although the code was so vital to the war effort, code talkers were not allowed to share anything about their involvement in the war, he said. In fact, MacDonald said, army officers told them to say simply that they were radiomen during the war, and to tell people to stop asking questions.

MacDonald said he kept the secret until 1968, when the American government declassified Navajo code, and he could finally tell his family and friends what he truly did after joining the war effort at only 15 years old.

“Yes, I lied about my age,” he said. “Why? Because my older cousin came home, wearing that beautiful Marine Corps uniform. I said, ‘Hey Tom, how do I get one of those?’ He said, ‘Join the Marines.’”

They accepted MacDonald without a birth certificate, he said, because his cousin Tom vouched for him. As the audience’s laughter died down, MacDonald remembered the sad ending to his cousin’s service to our country.

“Always, at least a dozen Navajo code talkers go in with the first wave. Tom was one of them,” MacDonald said. “After Tom took about ten steps away from the landing craft, an enemy machine gun fired across the beach. His body fell forward.”

About a dozen other code talkers met the same fate as Tom, MacDonald said. He ended his talk reflecting on the nature of the war to which many say the code and the code talkers were instrumental in winning.

“That’s war,” he said. “War is ugly. War is bad. But why do we send our young people into battle like that? Why? Because we love this country. That’s why. Someone said that our flag does not fly because the wind blows it. It flies with the last breath of thousands of soldiers who have died defending that flag.”

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