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One of the Last Navajo Code Talkers Shares Their Stories – Part I

by Yonca Poyraz-Dogan, Navy Office of Information | 08 November 2021

by Yonca Poyraz-Dogan, Navy Office of Information | 08 November 2021

Peter MacDonald Sr., a Navajo from Teecnospos, Arizona, didn't know he was going to be a radio operator in the Pacific during World War II. He joined the U.S. Marines because he liked their uniforms as some of his relatives were in the USMC. 

He was not alone! 

There were 50,000 Navajo tribe members in 1942. About 540 Navajos served as Marines as of 1945 and approximately 400 of them were trained as Code Talkers – mission that remained secret until 1968. 

Thanks to their skills, hundreds of messages were sent and received with speed and accuracy. Even though Japanese were skilled code breakers, they were never able to break it.

More than a dozen Navajo Code Talkers were killed in action and more than two dozen of them were wounded.

Today, there are only four survivors: Thomas H. Begay, John Kinsel Jr., Samuel Sandoval and Peter MacDonald Sr., all of them older than 90 years old.

Hear from the Navajo Code Talkers Thomas Begay and Peter MacDonald Sr. on this video: 

McDonald, who served in South Pacific as a Navajo Code Talker and North China with the Sixth Marine Division, was honorably discharged with a rank of corporal. Among his many honors is Congressional Silver Medal for heroic service to the country as a Navajo Code Talker. 

Our interview with MacDonald, President of the Navajo Code Talker Museum and former president of the Navajo Code Talker Association, is below.

Why did you join the military? What plans or dreams did you have for yourself when you joined? Did you know that you would be a radio operator when you joined the Marines (USMC)? 
I joined the USMC because I liked the uniform and many of my relatives were in the USMC. No, I didn't know I was going to be a radio operator. As a matter of fact, none of us knew what we would be doing in the USMC other than to shoot the enemy in the Pacific. The existence of the Navajo Code was top secret. We didn't know there was such a program until after going through boot camp, combat training, and communication school. After passing all those trainings, we were separated to attend the top secret Navajo Code School.
The first group of Navajos, 29 of them, were recruited in 1942 developed over 260 code words, subject to memory only. The code words they developed were tested on the invasion of Guadalcanal in August of 1942. The code worked under severe enemy fire. The code then became the official USMC and Navy military code to be used for all top secret and confidential messages in every invasion after Guadalcanal. Navy and Marine Corps used two communication networks: Navajo communication network for all top secret and confidential messages and English communication network for all other messages. These two communication networks worked side by side in every invasion. 

Eventually, a dictionary of Navajo Code was developed. Would you tell us about it? 
A dictionary of Navajo Code words was developed for all of us, the Navajo Code Talkers, to learn and memorize, starting with 260 code words in 1942. As the war expanded, so did the code words. By the time the war ended in 1945, there were over 600 code words to be memorized. Navajo Code Talkers also grew, from 29 in 1942 to over 400 by the end of WWII in 1945. Navajo Code was only used in the Pacific War. Japanese tried to break the code, but were unsuccessful. USMC tell us that Navajo Code was the only military code, in modern history, never broken by an enemy. 

Do you remember the first code that you sent in the war? 
I don't remember the first code I sent in battle. I was not on any landing, except in North China for getting the Japanese to surrender. We used the Navajo Code in North China. As a matter of fact, Navajo Code was used in every landing from Guadalcanal in 1942, including Bougainville, to Cape Gloucester, New Britain, Tarawa, Makin, Kwajalein, Eniwetoh, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Pelilui, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and North China. Over a dozen Navajo Code Talkers were killed in action and more than two dozen were wounded. Out of 400 plus Navajo Code Talkers who served in the Pacific war, there are only four of us still alive; the oldest of the four is 97 and the other two 96 and I am the youngest at age 93. The Navy and USMC established two communication networks to be used in every landing; Navajo Communication Network for all top secret and confidential messages and English Communication Network for all other messages, messages you don't care if the enemy understands or deciphers the message.

Have you ever been back to the battlefields?
I never went back to the Pacific battlefields. I was invited by a friend in North China to come back to see the "after" in China, but I didn't go. What I saw during our stay in Red China was an unusual experience which I shall never forget. War is ugly, during the day hundreds of Chinese kids – ages from 3-year-olds to 15-year-olds – now orphans, roamed the streets begging for food, eating garbage. Wherever they were at the end of the day, they just huddled together to keep themselves warm and usually one or two would die during the night. They'd just leave them there and move on. War and poverty are hell. There is much that we Americans can do to help our own people so they will not end up like those poor Chinese kids.

We always highlight our work with the Marines and call ourselves Blue & Green Team. How was your relationship with Sailors back in the time? Did you have any Sailor friends? 
My relationship with the Navy was nice and in most cases friendly. There was always teasing going on between Navy and Marines but nothing serious. I had several Navy friends; one of my clan cousins, Paul Redhouse, was with the Seabees, we met on Guam. Seabees always had good stateside chow with ice cream, pies and steaks, while we only had K-rations or C-rations. Paul used to invite some of us Navajo Code Talkers to Seabee meals to once again taste stateside food. My other cousin, Bob and I were raised together and he served in the Navy, too. 

Do you have a message for the Navy community?
My message to the U.S. Navy is to keep on sailing and continue to respect the USMC for their willingness to put their lives on the line to preserve our freedom, liberty and peace. Also, thanks to the Navy for not just dumping us on the beaches, but to continue to support us with their fire power and supplying us with all that we need and providing the critical medical services and evacuation. Semper Fi!

Find Part II of our interview here.

Naval History and Heritage Command has more on the Navajo Code Talkers: Navajo Code Talkers, World War II Fact Sheet and Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary



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