Just ahead of Veteran’s Day the U.S. Navy officially commemorated a new class of ships in honor of the valiant contributions of the Navajo people. Jonathan Nez, President of the 24th Navajo Nation Council joined Navajo Code Talker Peter MacDonald and other dignitaries at the Navy’s Authentication of the Keel Ceremony held for the unveiling of the new towing and salvage vessel, “USNS Navajo (T-ATS-6). The historic ceremony was held at the Houma, Louisiana Civic Center on Wednesday. October 30, 2019 and President Nez, Speaker of the Nation Council Seth Damon and Jocelyn Billy declared the keel to be” truly and fairly laid” as is the Naval tradition before signing their initials into the keel plate- the symbolic backbone of a ship. The “keep plate” was later fastened within the hull of the vessel.
President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2017 which supported the naming of the new class of ships as the USNS Navajo. In March, the Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer announced the new class of U.S. Navy Salvage and Rescue ships would be named “Navajo” to honor the significant contributions by the Navajo People to the Armed Forces.
According to coverage at the event by the Arizona Daily Independent, President Nez noted that this was a major milestone in our history and the first of its kind for the Navajo Nation. “I commend all the past leaders who advocated for this over the years to honor our people, including the late Senator John McCain, former President Russell Begaye,” and others.
Some of the most noteworthy contributions by the Navajo people in the military were those provided by in the 1940’s Navajo Code Talkers. During World War II, the Navajo Code Talkers were a unit in the Marine Corps tasked in the Pacific theater of that conflict to transmit secret messages. By the end of the war, some 400 of these unique Code Talkers were trained for this specialized service devised to bamboozle the Japanese War effort and hide the plans of the US military in the Pacific.
The Daily Independent report also cited that the Navajo people continue to serve in the Armed Forces at a higher rate than the national participation rate.
Honored to be in attendance was one of the last remaining Code Talkers, Peter MacDonald. The nonagenarian is a familiar feature in Arizona’s Four Corners area where he regularly is invited to give talks about his historic service at area functions and hotel gatherings for tourists.
Blessings Through Action was privileged to attend an early morning presentation last May at the Hampton Inn in Kayenta, AZ, where MacDonald recalled the excitement he had of hearing about the summons of the Marine’s to appear in Flagstaff. “We were all in boarding school at that time. We had never been anywhere before, really. They bussed us all to Flagstaff to see this officer. I guess it was too far for him to drive to see us.” MacDonald chuckled, and continued with his story. “We mostly ran around barefoot….and when we saw that officer, in his crisp, pressed uniform and his shoes so shiny. Well, I had never seen anything like him before. I wanted to sign up so that I could look like that too.”
“I ended up in Guam…but in August 1945, two bombs were dropped… Hiroshima…the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki…I was transferred… to go into north China because there were close to a million Japanese soldiers. They did not want to surrender, and eventually we got those Japanese to surrender,” MacDonald said.
When recruited, MacDonald was just 15 and lied about his age so that he could join his schoolmates into the war effort. His fascinating narrative explained the training that ensued and the process whereby the original code talkers had developed the unique “code” which exchanged every day Navajo words and slipped them into the military vernacular to trick the Japanese.
The amazing story of the “Windtalkers” was developed by Hollywood and released in 2002 film starring Nicholas Cage. Watch here: https://youtu.be/UViAS4WBNP8
In an interview earlier this year with Antonia Mejia of 12 News.com interviewed MacDonald to honor Navajo Code Talker Day on August 14. The elderly but spry Marine Corps veteran spoke of the origins of the program, “Before long, they ran into one big problem. The problem was communication. They tell us in any war, the side that has the best communication normally has the advantage in war. In our case, the enemy had the advantage. Why? Because they were breaking every military code that was being used in the Pacific, making it very very difficult to strategize,” MacDonald said.
“So the gentleman by the name of Philip Johnston was working near San Diego, California. When he learned of the situation in January of 1942, just a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he went over to a Marine Corps base, suggested, ‘Why not use Navajo language as a code?’” he said. The enemy didn’t know Navajo, nor did many people outside of the culture.
In his presentation.
MacDonald said with pride, “The only military code, they tell us, in modern history, never broken by an enemy. And believe me, they tried. The Japanese actually captured one Navajo. He was not a Code Talker, he was in the army in the Philippines, for two years, they have him listen to the Navajo messages going through the air, have him listen, and he tells them what we’re saying and it doesn’t make sense. So they punished the poor Navajo from over by Gallup, New Mexico… thinking that he’s just playing tricks on them, so they tortured him until he tells them exactly what we are saying, and he was, he’s telling them exactly what we’re saying, but it made no sense. Two years they punish him!”
“That’s the real story of the Navajo code—was that, like I said, the only military code in modern history never broken. But it also saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” stated MacDonald.
Now 91 years old, MacDonald explains that eventually, in April of 1942, military officials agreed to try it out, only allowing 30 young Navajos to be recruited. The inventive experiment was successful as the initial group passed thru training and worked out the code. By the end of July 1942, that first group of Navajos had created 260 code words, plus codes for punctuations marks bit was untried. Field tested during the mayhem of Guadalcanal the commander of the first marine division soon sent word stateside that exclaiming “This Navajo code is tremendous. The enemy never understood it. Send us more Navajos!”
Sadly, the original cadre of Code Talkers honored in the movie are all gone now, and only a few of the younger ones to join, such as Peter MacDonald still survive to educate the younger generations.
Lest we forget this brave and unique facet of America’s greatest generation, the stories of these National Treasures was recorded in 2014 for posterity. See the following links:
The stories of the Navajo Code Talkers are spellbinding and showcase the importance of the American melting pot and the unique qualities of the Navajo nation and their language.