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Code Talker shares story at MCAS
It was a deceptively simple code, yet it was the only one never deciphered by an enemy.
And Tuesday, Peter MacDonald, former Marine and member of the legendary Navajo Code Talkers, shared his story of serving in the Pacific Theater of World War II with a new generation of Marines at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
“It's great to be back with the Marines,” said the 83-year-old MacDonald, who was invited to speak on base. “Anytime I'm with the Marines, I feel very much at home. I wish I was young again and back in the Corps.”
From Guadalcanal to Tarawa to Iwo Jima, the Code Talkers took part in every battle the Marines were involved in in the Pacific during World War II, sending thousands of messages about Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics and other communications.
MacDonald, who was recently elected to lead the Navajo Code Talkers Association and the Navajo Code Talkers Foundation, said he was just 16 in 1944 when he joined the Marine Corps. While he would go on to become one of 430 Code Talkers, MacDonald explained that is not the reason he enlisted.
“We didn't join to become Code Talkers. None of us did. All of us joined to be Marines. Even the first group who went in, in February 1942, they were recruited specially to do this, but they weren't told that.”
Just like any other recruit, MacDonald said, the original 30 Navajo Marines went through basic training and combat training. It wasn't until then, he said, that they found out what an important role they, and the Navajo Marines who would come later, would play in the history of WWII and this country.
“This is the first time they had heard about it. So they were surprised,” said MacDonald, who is one of the 30 or so still-living Code Talkers, most of whom are in their 80s. “Here they are, ready to fight, and now they are going to sit here and develop a code in their language.”
A resident of Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation, MacDonald said those original Code Talkers worked day and night for the next three months helping to create the code and to learn it. The code they created is still, to this day, the only military code in modern military history that was never broken by an enemy.
“That is why it became very important for the U.S. Marines to keep it a secret,” MacDonald said. “The code was very, very difficult for anyone to decipher. Even the best cryptologist in the world couldn't break it.”
In explaining how the shockingly simple code worked, MacDonald said when a Navajo Code Talker received a message, what he heard was a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words. The message contained native terms that were associated with specialized or commonly used military language, as well as native terms that represented the letters in the alphabet.
Essentially the Code Talker would be translating each Navajo word into its English equivalent. Once that was done, the Code Talker would use the first letter of each word to spell a word in English.
According to the Code Talkers website, those military terms tended to resemble the things with which they were associated. For example, the Navajo word for tortoise, “chay-da-gahi,” meant tank, and a dive-bomber, “gini,” was a “chicken hawk,” (a bird which dives on its prey).
Sometimes the translation was more literal, as in “besh-lo” (iron fish) which meant submarine; other times it was metaphorical, as in “ne-he-mah” (our mother), which meant America. One way to say the word “Navy” in Navajo code would be “tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di-glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca).”
The code, which was used throughout the Korean War, remained top secret until 1968, when it was finally declassified. According to the Navajo Code Talker Association, it wasn't until 1971 when the term “code talker” was first used. Until then, Navajo Marines had been addressed simply as radiomen.
MacDonald also talked about how simple his life was growing up on a reservation in Arizona, compared with how vastly it changed after joining the Marine Corps.
“We were very much isolated on our reservation. Our association was principally with our own people, practicing our tradition, respecting it. Then when we got out of it, went to the Marines, it was an entirely different society, different traditions, a different language and they looked at things very, very differently.
“It was hard for us to adjust to that. But yet, as fighters, we were no different than any other Marines. But culturally there was a great deal of difference.”
Prior to enlisting in the Marines, MacDonald said he the farthest he had ever gone form the reservation was about 100 miles.
At the end of World War II, MacDonald served a year in China repatriating Japanese prisoners of war. He then used his GI Bill to get an electrical engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma, joined Hughes Aircraft and worked on the Polaris missile program. He returned to his Navajo roots and tribal politics in 1963.
James Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter @YSJamesGilbert.