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One of the Last Navajo Code Talkers Remembers WWII’s “Unbreakable Code”

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 9, 2022 3:05 am

One of the Last Navajo Code Talkers Remembers WWII’s “Unbreakable Code”

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 9, 2022 3:05 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, many Americans have heard of the famous Navajo Code Talkers who used their traditional language to transmit secret Allied messages in the Pacific Theater of combat during World War II. This story is told to us by one of these Marines, Peter MacDonald, the President at Navajo Code Talkers Association.

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This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And to hear or find our Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. Many Americans have heard of the famous Navajo Code Talkers who use their traditional language to transmit secret allied messages in the Pacific theater of combat during World War II. Our next story is told to us by one of those Marines. Peter McDonald is the president at Navajo Code Talkers Association. We'd like to give a special thank you to Peter's daughter Charity, who travels with her father as he speaks to Americans all over this great country. Thank you for serving us and securing this audio for us.

Here's Peter McDonald at one of those talks. In the early part of World War II, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States was getting ready to fight back in the Pacific. Not too long after December 7, 1941, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Army ran into one big problem. The problem was communication. They tell us that in any war, whichever side that has the best communication normally has the advantage in the war. Well, in this case, the enemy had the advantage.

Why? Because they were breaking every military code that was being used in the Pacific, making it very difficult to strategize without the enemy knowing where we're going to be, what route we're going to be taking, what hour, where, and when we are going to be at a specific location. And they would be there with their submarine, blow up our shipment of supplies, equipment, as well as personnel. This became a real problem for Marines and Navy, Air Force, and Army. A gentleman by the name of Philip Johnston was working near San Diego back in early 1942.

This situation of enemy breaking code became public knowledge around January of 1942. Philip Johnston learned of this situation, so he went over to the United States Marine Corps base to talk with the Marine Corps communication officers. He told them, why not use Navajo language as a code? The enemy doesn't know Navajo language, therefore it could be safe. Well, after much explanation, Marines really couldn't understand what he was really talking about. So, Philip Johnston went back to the Navajo Nation, brought four Navajos to San Diego Marine Corps base to demonstrate what he was talking about. They put two Navajos with radio headset on one end of the building, the other two on the other end. They gave these two a message to send to the other two. They compared the two messages, the one that was sent, the one that was received.

They're similar, but not exactly alike. But Marines were very desperate to get a code that the enemy would not understand. So, they asked the commandant of the United States Marine Corps in Washington, D.C. permission to try this suggestion made by Philip Johnston. Philip Johnston was not a Navajo. His parents came to the Navajo Nation late 1800 as missionaries to Navajos. So, Philip Johnston grew up on a Navajo, played with Navajo kids, and learned the language. He spoke Navajo very well. He also knew the culture of Navajo. Well, the commandant asked if they could try this. His initial response was, no, don't do that. We don't know these Indians, he said.

All we know is what we see in the movies. When they see a wagon train, they yell and holler right around that wagon train shooting arrows. This is not that kind of a war, so leave it alone. That was the commandant's initial response. Number two, the commandant said, the Marine Corps is a very proud organization. We don't want anyone wearing United States Marine Corps uniform that might embarrass this proud organization. Just do the best you can.

I'm sorry. Well, with that rejection, the enemy continued to break codes. The enemy continued to move in our direction real fast, taking strategic islands as a matter of fact that we need in order to get close to their homeland. More pressure on the commandant. We need a code. We might as well just call the enemy and say, hey, we can go such and such a place, such and such a time. We're going to be such and such location.

That's how it was. And you are listening to Peter Macdonald tell one heck of a story about the Navajo code talkers and how their code, their language came to be adopted by the US Marine Corps and helped us win a war. And you were hearing clearly some pretty, well, let's just say clearly ugly anti-Indian bias. But in the end, well, we're going to hear what happens next in this remarkable story of one of the last Navajo code talkers talking to you here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

But we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to our American stories dot com and click the donate button.

Give a little give a lot. Go to our American stories dot com and give. And we continue with our American stories and Peter Macdonald, who is the president at Navajo Code Talkers Association.

Let's pick up with his story and pick up with the continued difficulties Americans were having moving along in the Pacific theater because our codes kept being broken. The commandant in April of 1942 said, OK, but you got to do it my way. Number one, asked the Navajo Nation to use their language only. Number two, just recruit 30 young Navajos. Don't tell them what you're going to do with them. Just ask them if they want to fight and shoot the enemy, not with arrows, not with rifles. The commandant also said, we want to make sure that these 30 young Navajos can become United States Marines first.

So don't tell them. Just ask them if they want to join Marines and fight the enemy. If they say yes, recruit them like you do all other Marines you recruit. So Marine Corps came out to the Navajo Nation in May of 1942 to recruit 30 young Navajos.

Using detectives, the commandant suggested, you want to fight, you want to shoot the enemy, you want to wear a nice blue Marine Corps uniform like this, join the Marines, fight the enemy. So they did. They volunteered, all 30 of them. They gave them preliminary physical exam, one dropout. So just 29 were bussed down to San Diego. Now we talk in May of 1942, 29 young Navajos bussed down to San Diego. They were formed into one platoon. There were several platoons going through boot camp all at the same time. Graduation from boot camp, they create each platoon. Navajo platoon came in number one of all other platoons going through boot camp at that time. Of course, that message went back to the commandant. Commandant was very happy.

He said, wonderful. Process them through combat training and see what they do. Well, what the Marine States Marine Corps and commandant don't know is back in those days in the 30s and 40s it was not unusual for any one of us to put in five to 10 miles every day managing the livestock. Before sunup, you eat, you get out and move these livestock out, three or four of us young people. And they tell us to take these animals out to a nice green pasture. If you do find a green pasture, stay out there overnight if necessary, maybe two nights. So you carry a blanket. If you find a good pasture, you stay out there with the animals, whether it's raining, dust storm, sun beating down on you or snow, you stay out there.

And also, one of us would be carrying 22 rifles. You get hungry out there. So you shoot a rabbit, you barbecued a rabbit that you meal for the day. That's how it was.

Sometime 10 to 15 miles every day managing these livestock. So to these 29 young Navajos that just went through boot camp. It was like a vacation. Oh my God. A bed to sleep on with mattress, clean sheets, pillows. We didn't know there was such a thing as pillows until we got to San Diego. Also, you don't have to carry a 22 rifle to get something to eat.

Just get in the chat line. Three meals a day. What a life. Combat training the same thing.

No problem. So these 29 young Navajos that went in first graduated from Marine Corps communication school with high grades. And then they were separated from all other Marines. They were then taken to the east side of San Diego, a top secret location. A building about half the size of an average hotel with high fence all around that building and a gate. At the gate, there were two guards.

Over the gate, there's a big sign that said, keep up, top secret operation. Through that gate, a United States Marine Corps colonel, a full bird colonel, marched these 29 young Navajos through that gate into a classroom. And in that classroom were tables with four chairs around each table.

In front of each chair, writing tablets, a pencil, blackboard, chalk and eraser on the wall. Colonel then addressed these 29 young Navajo Marines now. He said, gentlemen, you are Marines now. You're ready to go fight and shoot the enemy.

But before you do that, we'd like for you to do something else. We'd like for you to develop a military code using your language. The colonel said immediately, whatever you do in this classroom, it's top secret. Also, the colonel went on and said, you're not going to carry anything out of this classroom. You're not going to carry anything to battle because if you do it, enemy shoots you, they search you and they'll find that copy of the code if you're carrying it around with you.

Nothing like that. Everything will be subject to memory only. Another thing the colonel said, whatever code you're going to be developing in this top secret classroom, only you would know.

Not another Navajo. That's the kind of code we want. The colonel then said, here's a box full of sample messages sent in combat. Look at it, read it and see how you can send messages like this using the code you're going to be developing.

Colonel sat down, lit his pipe and said, go to work gentlemen. So they did. They look at the messages. They read it.

They're all written in English language using the English alphabet. A, B, C, D, E, F. This presents the first big problem for these 29 young Navajos. We're talking now June of 1942.

Why was it a problem? Because Navajo is not a written language. Navajo is not a written language and my goodness, his story about bootcamp being a breeze because these guys' lives were tougher out in the field and they didn't actually have to hunt for their meals.

When we come back, more of this remarkable piece of American history and how Americans live and learn in the end, how they learn to fight and love each other. The story of the Navajo code talkers here on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories and Peter McDonald's riveting story about how the Navajo code talkers, well, how they came to be. And he's the president at Navajo Code Talkers Association.

Let's continue where Peter last left off. We don't have Navajo words for letters like A, B, C, D, E, F. So how in the world you're going to send a message? You don't even have words for it. Eventually, one of them went to the blackboard and wrote on a big letter A and said, let's call the letter A, Belasana. Belasana in Navajo means apple. How about letter B? After discussing it a while, they call letter B, Shash. Shash in Navajo means bear. Letter C, Masih.

Masih in Navajo means cat. Letter D, B. B in Navajo means deer. D-E-A-R. All the way down to letter Z. The code word for letter Z was Pesto Tlish. Pesto Tlish in Navajo means sink.

Zink starts with Z, right? The colonel also said, there's another Marine Corps officer in that same classroom. He said, this officer is a Marine Corps military code expert. Whatever code you develop, you run it by him. So they did. The officer said, that's great.

That's wonderful. But remember, we have an enemy that is very smart and very intelligent. They can break any code that's in use. And they use different method to do that. One of the method is repetition. Like the word Guadalcanal has four A's in it. So you don't want to say Pilasana, Pilasana, Pilasana, Pilasana four times spelling Guadalcanal. So back to the drawing board.

What do we do? Well, the 29 young Navajos decided, okay, if that's the case, then why don't we create two additional words for each letters of the English alphabet. Like the letter A, the first code word would be Pilasana, apple. The second code word for the letter A would be Cenil. Cenil in Navajo means X, something you chop wood with. The third code word for the letter A would be Wilachi.

Wilachi in Navajo means ant, A-N-T. Two additional words for each letters of the English alphabet from A to Z. They ran it by the code expert. The code expert said, wonderful, that's what we want. Terrific.

Yeah, terrific for you. But what that means is we have to memorize that many more code words for each letters of the English alphabet. Remember, everything is subject to memory only. Every Friday, there would be a test. They divide the group into two, group A and group B. Well, toward the end of July 1942, final test, group A and group B. Group A is given a real tough message continuing all of those 260 code words just developed and memorized. Sent to group B. Group B wrote it down. They compared the two messages very much alike, with one exception, punctuation marks.

Back to the classroom. To create code words for punctuation marks. A period, no problem, decision. Decision in Navajo means a black dot. Summer colon took a little time to create code word for it, but eventually it was called decision, but say it not dead. Decision but say it not dead in Navajo means a black dot that lost its tail.

That would be the code word for summer colon. Question mark. Acha. Acha in Navajo means ears.

Question mark looks like an ear. All the punctuations you could think of. Code words were developed, memorized. Back to group A and group B. Group B wrote it down. They compared the two messages. That gully is very, very much alike.

As a matter of fact, it looks like a Xerox copy of the one that was sent. At this juncture, the colonel said, gentlemen, we're finished now. We can test this code that you just developed in actual battle to see how your memory works under enemy gunfire. So, August 7, 1942, 1st Marine Division landed on the beaches of Guadalcanal with 13 Navajo code talkers to test this new code that was just developed. Three weeks after the landing, General Vandergriff, commander of the 1st Marine Division, sent word back to United States saying, this Navajo code is terrific. The enemy never understood it.

We don't understand it either, but it works. Send us some more Navajos. So, from that day on, San Diego Marine Corps base took charge of recruiting Navajos. After August 1942, using the same tactics, come out here and say, hey, you want to join the Marines? You want to shoot the enemy? You want to wear a blue uniform like this? Come join the Marines. Nothing about codes.

Zero. So, we all volunteered to join the Marines and fight. I went in early 1944 at age 15.

That's another story. But anyway, after Guadalcanal, every landing in the Pacific Navajo code was used. After Guadalcanal, Boukenville. After Boukenville, Cape Cluster. After Cape Cluster, New Britain. After New Britain, Tarawa, Macon, Kwajalein, Inuitok, Taipan, Tinian, Guam, Aosan, Guam. After Guam, the next island, Peleliu, a real bad one. After Peleliu, Iwo Jima, another bad one. After Iwo, Okinawa. After Okinawa, some of us were sent into North China.

And what a story you are hearing. It is Peter McDonald, president at Navajo Code Talkers. And this is what World War II did from our great and terrific stories about our Tuskegee Airmen to the women who worked riveting and doing all kinds of things at shipyards across this country.

It moved the country along on so many fronts. When we come back, more of the story of the last Navajo Code Talkers. And that's Peter McDonald we're listening to here on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories and Peter McDonald, the president at Navajo Code Talkers Association and a code talker himself who served in the Pacific theater. And he was just talking about the code talkers and how they hopped from island to island to island, every battle in the Pacific. They were there.

Let's pick up where we last left off with Peter McDonald. October 25, 1945. We have separate peace treaty ceremony with those Japanese in North China at Tsingtao, China. October 25, 1945. All through these battles, Navajo Code was used.

How does it sound? Well, let's go to Iwo Jima. Three Marine Division landed on Iwo Jima, third, fourth, and fifth.

February 1945. Each division of the United States Marine Corps have at least 70 Navajo Code Talkers assigned to each division, every landing. That's how it was. At least a dozen Navajo Code Talkers to hit the beach first with the first wave. So you're talking about over 200 Navajo Code Talkers involved on the island of Iwo. On the south side, of course, there's Mount Suribachi.

Most people are familiar with that. In the center is the airstrip. On the north side, there's some little hills. Beneath one of those hills, a company of Marines was pinned down very badly. They were being fired on from three different directions. Motor shells were being dropped on them.

They were hunkering in their fog so desperately can't move. The commander of that company scribbled a message handed to the Code Talker that was covering that particular unit for the front line. Asked him to send that message to Beach Command Post asking for help. What did the Navajo Code Talkers do? He got the message from the commander of that company written in English. He then dialed another Navajo Code Talker down at the Beach Command Post and sent that message. By the way, this message I'm going to tell you is the exact message that was sent on Iwo. A copy of this message is Marine Corps Archives in Washington, D.C. Well, the Navajo Code Talker got the message. He sent it to Navajo Code Talker at the Beach Command Post. What did he write down? She was no Sig Horse?

No. He wrote down, send demolition team to Hill 362B. That was the message. That message Navajo Code took 20 seconds. After 20 seconds, the Beach Command Post commander organized a rescue team to save that company of Marines. Tanks with flamethrowers, other heavy units was sent out there. Over 2,000 Navajo messages the first 48 hours on Iwo Jima land. If you do little math, that means Navajo code going through the air every minute nonstop for 48 hours. We Marines, we always used to say, just name an island, we go get it for you.

That was our motto. But Major Conner said in his report, no, without Navajo code, Marines would never have taken the island of Iwo Jima. I told you earlier that I joined Marines when I was 15 years old around Tisna's Pass area where I grew up.

I have a cousin. He went in, in 1943, and was involved in about two landings. When he came home from on his furlough, he was wearing a beautiful Marine Corps uniform. I said, Tom, how do I get one of those uniforms? He said, join the Marines. I said, I want to do that. So he looks at me, he said, how old are you? I said, I'm 15. He said, I can't do that. You got to be at least 17 to join the Marines.

Well, I said, they don't know. Well, he says, whatever you do, you got to tell them you're 17 years old. So Tom and I, we went to Farmington, New Mexico, to a Marine Corps recruiting office.

I asked a recruiter, I said, I want to join the Marines. He looks at me, he says, how old are you? I'm 17. And he said, where's your birth certificate? I told him, I don't have birth certificate. I was born out in the boondocks, no hospital, no paperwork. So he said, well, I can't let you go in unless somebody vouched for you that you're 17 years old. I said, here's my cousin. He's a United States Marine.

So Tom signed the paperwork saying, I'm 17 years old. Anyway, he went back to join his unit. That's how I joined United States Marines. War is ugly. War is bad. Yet, even to this day, we send our kids out.

Why? Because we love this country, because we cherish what this country means to us, like freedom and liberty. We don't want our parents and relatives to be subjected to the ugliness of war. That's why we're out there doing this. The code that we developed was so good that upon discharge from the United States Marines, they told us, don't tell anyone what you did, because what you did is still top secret. You wait until the code is declassified. The only thing we were told to say, if people continue to ask us what we did in the war, just tell them you were a radio man.

That's all. For 23 years after the war, we couldn't tell anyone. We finally forgot it, leave it alone. It was not until 1968, 23 years after World War II that the Navajo Code was declassified as a military code, and it was only after 1968 that we were allowed to talk about it. Of course, we're not going to be here very long and tell people like you folks what happened, but we want to build a museum, National Navajo Code Talker Museum, so that when we're all gone, our children, our grandkids and the future generation can go through that Navajo Code Talker Museum and learn all about who we are as Americans, and that as diverse as we are, when our way of life is threatened, we all come together as one. Using the different skill, talents and languages, whatever it is that we have, we become one, and when we become one, we are invincible.

We cannot be defeated. And a beautiful job on the editing by Greg Hengler, and a special thanks to Peter McDonald, who was a Marine and President at Navajo Code Talkers Association, and we will always tell that story, Peter, always. To find out more about the museum, Google Navajo Code Talkers Museum in Cebuñito, New Mexico.

It's spelled T-S-E, Cebuñito. What a story about so much. He says, the Marines used to say, name the island, and we'll go get it for you.

But of course, without the Navajo Code, the Marines couldn't take Iwo Jima or anything else. Whatever you do, tell them you're 17 years old, his pal said, and what a story that was. Imagine there was a day when 15-year-olds volunteered to join a war when they had to be 17. What a time. A beautiful story about so much about what makes America great. Never been said better on this show than from Peter McDonald, the story of the Navajo Code Talkers here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 08:37:22 / 2023-02-17 08:48:01 / 11

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