From the 2019 National Storytelling Festival: Peter MacDonald

Last year at the National Storytelling Festival we were honored to host Peter MacDonald for a very special Storytelling Studio presentation. Sharing the stage with his host, storyteller Tim Tingle, MacDonald told the fascinating story of his military service in World War II, when he was part of an elite team of communications experts for the Marine Corps known as the Navajo Code Talkers. By developing and using a highly sophisticated code based on Navajo language, the Code Talkers saved hundreds of thousands of American lives in the Pacific Ocean Theater.

We’re excited to make the video of Peter MacDonald’s studio session, as well as a full transcript, available to the public. 

Full Transcript:


Tim Tingle: It is, as I’m sure all of you feel, a deep American honor to be here. The Navajo Nation is the largest American Indian nation in America and Peter MacDonald is from Teecnospos, Arizona. And he joined the military at age 15. He is one of the few remaining Navajo Code Talkers. He has been to Washington, D.C. many times to be honored. And one thing I wanted to share with you, a personal thought, that I’m sitting on stage with a man of brilliance. Long after his military service, he attended the University of Oklahoma and asked to take the most difficult courses they could offer in order to prove that he deserved to be there. He got a degree in electrical engineering, and we were sharing Sooner Stories—my master’s degree was also from University of Oklahoma, several years later. So let’s give one more round of applause to Peter MacDonald.


Peter, would you share with us what it was like to join the military at age 15?


Peter MacDonald: Well, it was something that’s pretty hard to separate from what was going on at that time, 1940s. And in the world of Navajo, when you reach the age of 12, you’re pretty much an adult. So 15 years old was pretty much an adult person. As a matter of fact, back in those days, in Navajo country, Navajo world, there was no such thing as teenagers. You grow up, learn everything you need to learn in order to live in a Navajo world, 12 years of age. After that, you pretty much know what you’re supposed to know in order to be a good, productive citizen of the Navajo Nation.


And what encouraged you to join the military at age 15?


Well, really, this was during World War II. A friend, a cousin of mine with whom I grew up, herded sheep. And whenever sheep stopped grazing real nicely, he and I would get together and play. He was about three years older than I am. One day he came home on furlough, and he was wearing a beautiful blue Marine Corps uniform. And I asked Tom, hey, how do I get one of those? He said join the Marines. I said I want to do that. So he looks at me and says how old are you? I said I’m 15. He said, eh, you can’t do that. You’ve got to be at least 17. I said, well, they don’t know. I like that uniform. So not too long, I ended up in Farmington, New Mexico Marine Corps recruiting office and ask the recruiter. I want to join the Marines. The first thing he asked: How old are you? I said I’m 17. And he asked for my birth certificate. I told him I don’t have one. I was born out in the boon docks following livestock, sheeps, horses, and cattle. My mother got into labor, and I fell right out on a sheepskin. No record. So he then asks you’ve got to have someone to vouch for you, to say that you’re 17 years old. I said here’s my cousin. He’s a Marine. So he signed that I was 17 years old, and that’s how I joined the United States Marines when I was 15 years old.


And how long after you signed and joined the Marines before you got your beautiful blue uniform, which was why you joined?


The sad story is I never wore one of those blue uniforms.


Peter, a little humor always adds much to the event. Thank you so much for that. And how long after you joined the Marines…did they already have the Navajo Code School? Or did they start it how long afterwards, before you entered that school?


Yeah. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the United States Marines, Navy, Army, and Air Force were all getting ready to fight back in the Pacific. In not too long, they ran into one big problem. The problem was communication. They tell us that in any war, no matter how far back you go in history, the site that has the best communication normally has the best advantage in war. In our case, in the Pacific, the enemy had the advantage. Why? They were breaking every military code that was being used by Marines, Navy, Army, and the Air Force, making it very, very difficult to strategize this huge Pacific area, where it takes days to go from Point A to Point B. Sometimes even weeks to go from Point A to Point B. The enemy had all that time to break your code. They will then know exactly where you started from, what route you’re going to be taking, what day, what time you’re going to be at what location. And they will be there with their submarine, blow up your shipment of supplies, equipment, as well as personnel. This wasn’t good at all.


This particular situation became public in January of 1942, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. A gentleman by the name of Phillip Johnston was working near San Diego, California. When he learned of this situation, he went over to the Marine Corps base in San Diego, talked to the communication officers suggesting why not use Navajo language as a code. The enemy doesn’t know Navajo language, so it would be safe. Well, he tried to explain to the Marine Corps communication officers how this thing could work. But it was difficult for them really to comprehend what was he suggesting. So Phillip Johnston came back to the Navajo Nation, took four Navajos down to San Diego, and demonstrate to the Marine Corps communication officers what he was talking about. They put two Navajos with a radio headset at one end of the building, two on the other end. They gave these two a message to send a Navajo to the other two. They compared the two messages, the one that was sent and the one that was received, to see how much the two messages look alike. They were similar, but it wasn’t alike at all. But it had some possibilities. So the Marine Corps communication officers asked permission from the United States Marine Corps commandant in Washington, D.C. Permission to try the suggestion made by Phillip Johnston.


Was Phillip Johnston Navajo?


Philip Johnston was not a Navajo.


How did he know that this would…


Philip Johnston came. HIs parents came to the Navajo Nation late 1800 as missionaries to Navajo. Philip Johnston was just a little boy then. So he grew up on Navajo, playing with Navajo kids, learned the Navajo language. Learned the culture. He also, Philip Johnston, also served in World War I, in Europe, in the United States Army with communication unit. So he knows something about communication. That’s why he made the suggestion. Well, the commandant, after he was asked to try the suggestion made by Philip Johnston, the commandant response was no. Don’t do that, he said. We don’t know these Indians. All we know is what we see in the movies, he said. When they see Wagon Train, they yell and holler and ride around the wagon train shooting arrows. This is not that kind of a war, so leave it alone. Number two, the commandant also said the Marine Corps is a very proud organization. We don’t want anyone wearing the United States Marine Corps uniform that might embarrass this proud organization. Just do the best you can.


The truth is there were probably thousands of American Indians already in uniform and he was unaware of it.


But their rejection was in February of 1942. Well, the enemy continued to move in the other direction of the Pacific blowing up a shipment of supplies, personnel, even taking the islands that we need in order to get close to their homeland, like Guam, Wake Island, and other islands. Move in the direction real fast. No problem. More pressure on the commandant. We need a code. We need something, because we might as well just call the enemy and say, hey, tomorrow we’re going to leave San Diego and we’re going to take such a route. We’re going to be at such-and-such a place at such a day and time. They’ll say thank you. Well, eventually, in April of 1942, the commandant said, okay. But you’ve got to do it my way, he said. My way is you are developing a military code. All military code is top secret. No one knows these military codes except those who have a need to know. So if you’re going to create a military code using the Navajo language it must be a top-secret project. No one must know that you are working on a military code using Navajo language. Number one, top secret.


Number two, he said that we don’t know these Indians. They may not even become United States Marines. So don’t tell them what you’re going to do with them. Only recruit 31 Navajos and see how well they’re going to do. See if they can actually become United States Marines. Recruit 30 of them, just ask them if they want to go fight the war in the Pacific. And if they say yes, recruit them like you do all other Marines. Process them through boot camp, and if they pass boot camp, process them through combat training like you do all other Marines. And if they pass combat training, process them through the Marine Corps communications school like all Marines who want to be Marine Corps communication. And if they pass that, then go ahead and use them to create a military code. But top secret operation. Also ask the Navajo Nation permission to use their language. That’s all.


So with that, in May of 1942, Marine recruiters came out to the Navajo Nation to recruit 30 young Navajos per the instruction of the commandant of the United States Marine Corps in D.C. They went. There were no schools on Navajo. No telephone lines. No electricity. Nothing. No buildings! As a matter of fact, if you stood in the middle of the Navajo Nation, whichever way you’d look, all you would have seen was livestock. Thousands of sheep, horses, and cattle whichever way you looked, plus hogans, that’s our home. We sleep in there and eat. We leave the hogan before sunup to tend to all of these livestock that were out there then, owned by families. Some families had 1,500 head of sheep, 500 cows, and maybe about 30 horses and the farm. That was life back in 1940 on Navajo.


How long did it take to recruit the 30 Navajo?


Well, they went to boarding schools. That’s where Navajo kids were going to school. Federal government boarding schools. It took them about three weeks to get 30 young Navajos to volunteer to want to go to war, shoot enemies in the Pacific. They were given a preliminary physical exam. One of them dropped out, so only 29 were put on a bus and were taken down to San Diego Marine Corps recruit depot.


Now, you were already in the Marines at this time. Is that correct?


Beg pardon?


You were already in the Marines at this point?


No, I was a baby then.


Oh, you were…


1942 is when I’m talking.


You were just a baby then.


I joined the Marines in 1944.


Right. You were just a baby in ’42. Yeah, right. But you were a teenaged baby.


Why the code was needed, how it was debated whether to try or not. Finally, it was decided. So 29 young Navajos were bussed down to San Diego to go through boot camp, see if they can actually become Marines. The 29 were made into one platoon. There were several platoons going through boot camp all at the same time. At the end of boot camp, each platoon is graded to see which one came in number one, number two, number three, number four. Navajo platoon, the 29 young Navajos, after May of 1942, came in number one of all the other platoons going through boot camp. This went back to the commandant, and the commandant was very happy. He said, wonderful, now process them through combat training and see what they do. Well, they did the same thing. They came out of that combat training as experts or sharp shooters with most of the weapons that were being used at that time. Then they were then processed through a Marine Corps communication school at Camp Pendleton, California, near Oceanside. That’s where they taught us how to operate different radio equipment that was being used at that time. How to make minor repairs out in the field. Also how to run telephone lines from coconut trees to coconut trees. Also taught us Navy semaphore signals. They taught us Morse code. Of course, Morse code was one of their military codes used at that time. They don’t use that anymore, but it went something like ..-….-. That was Morse code. Well, these 29 young Navajos in 1942 pass all of that. After they pass all of that, they were then separated from all other Marines. The United States Marine Corps colonel, a “full bird” colonel, took charge of these 29 young Navajos. Put them on a bus, took them down to the east side of San Diego, California near a place called Camp Elliott, a top-secret location. They were bussed to that location, a medium-sized building with a high fence all around that building. Like a prison. A gate. At the gate, there’s two guards. The colonel, the Marine Corps colonel, processed these 29 young Navajos through that gate. Over the gate, there’s a big sign that said, “Keep out! Top secret operation.” Through that gate these 29 Navajos were processed into classrooms about a fourth the size of this room here. In that room were tables before chairs. In front of these chairs, writing tablet, pencils. A blackboard with chalk and eraser. The colonel then addressed these 29 young Navajos. He said, gentlemen, you’re Marines now. You’re ready to go fight the war in the Pacific. But before you do that, we’d like for you to do something else first. We’d like for you to develop a military code using your language. Mind you, this is the first time these 29 young Navajos knew.


Why they were recruited.


They were recruited to develop a military code.


Yeah. Will you explain something? You talked about earlier, before the crowd came in, about the English alphabet and the interesting way that was translated into the code.


Yeah, well, the first thing that the colonel said to these 29 young Navajos. Now we’re talking June of 1942 at this top-secret location. He said everything you do is going to be top secret. You’re not to take anything out of this top-secret classroom back to your barracks out that gate. You’re going to be searched before you go back to your barracks, from your toes to the top of your head, making sure you don’t take anything out of this top-secret classroom. All the notes that you’re going to be writing down will be gathered and put in a file under lock and key. Also, whatever code words you’re going to be developing must be such that only you would know the code words. Another Navajo not in this top-secret classroom hear you use these code words you’re going to be developing should have absolutely no idea what in the world you are talking about.


Even another Navajo would not know.


So he says 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 words you’re going to be developing. Okay? So they went to work. The colonel sat down and lit his pipe and said, gentlemen, go to work. I kept asking myself if I was one of those 29 young Navajos who volunteered to go to war in the Pacific and fight the enemy, and here I am being asked to do something, and I have no idea what in the world that is or how I’m going to do it. Never done it before. Also the top-secret business. I probably would have said to the other guys, hey guys, looks like we made a mistake. Let’s get out of here. Well, I’m sure they thought that, but like all good Marines, you had to obey your officer. So they started looking at these messages, simple military messages. They were all written in the English language using the English alphabet: ABCDEF. This presented the first big problem for these 29 young Navajos. Why? Because Navajo is not a written language. Therefore, there’s no Navajo words for letter A or B or C or D. How in the world are you going to send something you don’t even have words for? So I’m sure they sat there scratching their heads. One of them went to the blackboard, wrote on it a big letter A, and said since this whole thing is a top-secret project and only we are supposed to know what these code words are, another Navajo not in this top-secret classroom should have no idea what we’re talking about when we start using these code words. Let’s call the letter A be-la-sana. Be-la-sana in Navajo means “apple.” So they wrote it down in their notepad. A equals be-la-sana or apple. How about letter B? They talk about it. Eventually they decided to call letter B, shush. Shush in Navajo means bear.


Peter, don’t tell them J for a little while. Tell them several other letters before you do J.


Anyway, the letter C, moasi in Navajo, means cat. Letter D, be in Navajo means deer, D-E-E-R. You see what they were doing? They were selecting Navajo words that they were very familiar with because they were also told they cannot take any notes with them into battle, especially the code words. Because if the enemy ever shoots them, the enemy will search them, will take that note, and break the code.


M! What was the letter M?


Peter MacDonald: M?


M, yeah.


Oh, na-as-tso-si. Na-as-tso-si in Navajo means mouse. That’s the code word for the letter M. Anyway, they created code words for each letters of the English alphabet from A to Z. And it would be subject to memory only. So they were choosing Navajo words that they are very familiar with. Easy to remember all the way down the line. There would be tests every Friday. They divide the group into two: group A and group B. Group A is giving the message of all the code words that they have developed and memorized. Sent to group B. Group B writes it down. They compare the two messages to see how well these two messages are becoming to be exactly alike, indicating that they have memorized.


Peter, it’s time now to tell them J. The animal J in Navajo.


Well, the code word for letter J. He wants to know. I don’t know why. the code word for the letter J is tkele-cho-g. Tkele-cho-g in Navajo means jackass.


Thank you, Peter.


Easy to remember. We had a lot of jackasses back in those days. We use them to hold water, wood, and sometimes we ride them to manage all the livestock that we were managing. All the way down to Z. Code word for letter Z, besh-do-tliz. Besh-do-tliz in Navajo means zinc. So now they have created Navajo code words for each letter of English and have that memorized. And only they know what those Navajo words represent. For instance, if another Navajo not in that top-secret classroom hear us say, “be-la-sana”—apple—they think we’re talking about something you eat. But if you’re a Code Talker and you hear be-la-sana come through the air, you write down the letter A. That’s how this whole thing worked every day, developing code words.


There were hundreds of military terms we had no Navajo words for. Hand grenade. Hand grenade in Navajo, we have no Navajo word for. We’d never seen a hand grenade until we got to San Diego. So we had to create a name for it, code name. Code name chosen ni-ma-si. Ni-ma-si in Navajo means potato. A hand grenade looks like a potato. Again, if another Navajo not in that top-secret classroom hears us say ni-ma-si, they think we’re talking about French fries. But we the Code Talkers, when we hear ni-ma-si come through the air, we write down hand grenade. Every day these 29 young Navajos in June into July of 1942 created code words. They test every Friday to see how well they were memorizing these code words. By the middle of July 1942, 260 code words were developed, memorized. Final test. Group A. Group B. Group A is given a long message containing those 260 code words sent to group B. They wrote it down in English. They compared the two messages. They were very, very much alike, with one exception. Punctuation marks. Back to the classroom to create code words for punctuation marks. A period, no problem. Da-ahl-zhin. Da-ahl-zhin in Navajo means a black dot. Semicolon took a little time to create a code word for it, but eventually it was called da-ahl-zhin-bi-tsa-na-dahl. Da-ahl-zhin-bi-tsa-na-dahl in Navajo means a black dot that lost its tail. The code word.


That’s why most Americans still don’t know how to use a semicolon, I think.


Question mark: ah-jah. Ah-Jah in Navajo means ears. A question mark looks like an ear. All the punctuation marks we could think of code words were developed, memorized, put to final test. Group A. Group B. Group A is given a long message. 260 code words plus all the punctuation marks you can think of sent to Group B in Navajo code. They wrote it down in English. They compared the two messages. They were exactly 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. We can test this code that you developed and memorized in actual battle to see how your memory works in actual battle, under enemy fire. So toward the end of July 1942, 13 of these 29 young Navajos who had just developed this new set of code words were sent overseas to join the 1st Marine Division. The 1st Marine Division was in Australia, getting ready to go on the first offensive movement in the Pacific. August 7, 1942, 79 years ago—no, 77 years ago. The first Marine Division landed on the beaches of Guadalcanal with 13 Navajo Code Talkers to test the code that had just been developed under enemy fire.


So 13 Navajo Code Talkers landed at Guadalcanal with the Marines. That’s amazing.


With the 1st Marine Division. Right.


That is amazing.


So three weeks after the landing on Guadalcanal, General Vandegrift, commander of the 1st Marine Division, sent word back to the United States saying this Navajo code is terrific. The enemy never understood it, he said. We don’t understand it either. But it works! Send us some more Navajo. So it was tested, passed muster. The word got back to the United States, back to the commandant of the United States Marine Corps in D.C. Of course he was very, very happy. He then ordered San Diego Marine Corps base to take charge of this new military code, which was just developed by 29 young Navajos in 1942. June and July. Marines started coming on to Navajo now, recruiting young Navajos. Same tactics. Hey, you want to go fight the war in the Pacific? You want to shoot the enemy in the Pacific, come on. Join the Marines. You want to wear a nice blue uniform, join the Marines. That’s how all of us joined the Marines. Nothing about code. It’s top secret. No one knows there’s such a thing going on until we go through boot camp. After boot camp, we go through combat training. After combat training, we go through communication school. If we pass all of that, then we get separated from all of the Marines to that top-secret location inside of San Diego. Now it’s called Navajo Code School, a top-secret operation. Into that classroom, where we first of all learned the 260 code words that were developed by the first 29 that went in. But as the war went on, more code words were needed. So by the time the war ended, 1945, there were over 600 code words to be memorized.


Tell us some of the new code words. Do you recall any of the newer code words that were developed?


Well, there’s over 600 of them.


Just a few. Any of the weapons, or any of the bombs.


Well, it’s something that as we went along, there’s new words that are needed. We didn’t think about it with the first group that went in because first of all, their task was to create a code and see how it could be used. Once they learned how it could be used, most codes that were top secret confidential messages start going through Navajo code. And that became many more words because there are a lot more words in those communications.


Where were you first stationed?


Well, as each group graduated, usually they recruit about 20 or 30 young Navajos. Then they go through boot camp. After combat training, communication school, they get separated and go to their code school. When they graduate, then they’re sent overseas. It’s a process that went on.


Where did you first go in the Pacific?


Well, I joined in 1944. I was sent to Pearl Harbor first, and then from Pearl Harbor to Guam. And after Guam, into North China near Manchuria. When the war ended, I was in North China.


What was that like, being in China during World War II?


Our principal job was communication. Every landing from Guadalcanal until the war ended, every landing Navajo code was used. As a matter of fact, it became an official military code. It could be treated and guarded as all other military codes in use at that time. Navajo code. So every landing, Marines and Navy established true communication network. Navajo communication network for all top secret confidential messages. Messaging you don’t want the enemy to know went through Navajo network. Navajo code. The second communication network was English for all other messages. Messaging you don’t care if the enemy breaks the code or understands what you’re talking about went through an English network. These two communication networks worked side by side everywhere in the landing: front line, beach command post, command ship. Usually the command ship is a battleship, where the generals and the admirals are directing the landing operation. Inside the communication room in the battleship, two tables. Around one table sits about five of us Navajo Code Talkers with message pads. Another table right next to us. Around that table sits blonde-haired blue-eyed guys. They’re handling the English network. These two communication networks side by side everywhere. Like I said, front line, beach command post. In most of those ships that are used in landing, like battleship cruisers, destroyers, submarines, aircraft carriers. They all have these two communication networks in them. Marine air wing. Marine tank units. Marine artillery units all have these two communication networks. So when the first fire is shot on the landing, all hell breaks loose. Excuse the language.


Anyway, communication starts going everywhere, coming into the command ship. Into the command post. Everywhere. Messages coming into the command ship, if you’re one of those in the command ship communication room, messages start coming in. Navy assigns us runners to stand behind each one of us 24 hours a day inside that command ship. So messages start coming in. We wrote it down in English, hand it over our shoulder to the runner standing behind us. He then takes it up to the bridge, gives it to the admiral or the general. They read it, they respond. The runner brings it back down. If it says “Arizona, New Mexico” on top of that message, we send that message back out in Navajo code where it was intended. But if it does not have that “Arizona, New Mexico” on top, it goes to the next table. The English network guys send that message out in English code or English language. This goes on 24 hours a day until the island is secured. That’s how Navajo code was used in every landing from Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Cape Gloucester, New Britain, Tarawa, Makin, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Saipan, Tinian, Guam. After Guam, Peleliu, a real bad island. After Peleliu, Iwo Jima, another bad one. After Iwo, Okinawa. Not only a bad one, but real long. Almost three months before we secured that island.


Were you on Iwo Jima?


No. Three Marine divisions landed on Iwo Jima: 3rd, 4th, and 5th Division. And each division had at least 80 Navajo Code Talkers assigned to each division. So on Iwo Jima, these three divisions, multiply 80 times 3, that’s over 200 Navajo Code Talkers participated on the landing of Iwo, providing that very important confidential top secret messages. Messaging you didn’t want the enemy to know went through Navajo network. As a matter of fact, on Iwo Jima, 5th Marine Division took the north side of that island. There were some little hills on the north side. A company of Marines were pinned down real badly. So the company commander scribbled a message, handed it to a Navajo Code Talker covering the front line for that particular company of the 5th Division to send a message to the beach command post asking for help. They were being fought on from three different directions. Mortar shells were being dropped on them by the enemy. They were desperately hanging to their life in their fox holes. A message given to Code Talker to send that message to beach command post asking for help. This is what he said in Navajo: DIBEH, AH-NAH, A-SHIN, BE, AH-DEEL-TAHI, D-AH, NA-AS-TSO-SI, THAN-ZIE, TLO-CHIN.


I know you didn’t understand what I said. But let’s say that message was broadcast to the Navajo people on reservation. What did they hear this Navajo Code Talker say in Navajo code words asking for help. This is exactly what he said. By the way, this message I just recited is the actual message that was sent in Iwo Jima. A copy of it is in the Marine Corps archives in Washington, D.C. So if you go to D.C., go to the Marine Corps archives. You’ll see that crumpled message. It’s right off that island. This is exactly the same message that I just read to you. Anyway, if that message was broadcast to Navajo, this Navajo Code Talker said what in Navajo. He said: Sheep. Eyes. Nose. Deer. Destroyer. Tea. Mouse. Turkey. Onion. Sick horse. Three. Six. Two. Bear.


That’s what we would have guessed.


What in the world is that? This message took 20 seconds, that I just read. As each Navajo word went through the air from beneath that hill, 362B, to beach command post, 20 seconds. As each Navajo code word comes through the air, the Code Talker writes it down in English. What did he write down? Sheep, eyes, nose, deer, sick horse. No. This is what he wrote down: Send demolition team to hill 362B. There were three hills on the north side: 362A and 362B and 362C. Beneath 326B was the problem. 20 seconds for that message. After 20 seconds, beach command post organized a rescue team to rescue that company of Marines. Tanks with flamethrowers and other heavy units were sent out there. If that same message was sent in English code, 30 minutes, 20 seconds in Navajo code. 30 minutes in English code.


Why 30 minutes? Because if you’re going to send something in English code besides our radio that we all carry, we also carry a little unit called the scrambling and descrambling machine. If you want to send something in English code, you turn on your scrambling machine. You take the first letter of that message in English, feed it into your scrambling machine, press the button. Take the second letter of that message, feed it into your scrambling machine, press a button. One letter at a time, press the button all the way across the message until you’re finished. You press the big button, out comes that message scrambled. That’s the one you sent over the air to the English network guys. They write it down in scrambled form. They turn on their descrambling machine. Take the first letter of their scrambled message, feed it into their descrambler machine and press a button. Take the next letter of that scrambled message and press a button all day long until he finishes it. Presses a big button, out comes that message—hopefully, the one that was sent. 30 minutes doing that vs. 20 seconds in Navajo, the same code. That’s why Marines and Navy really loved Navajo code: because it was fast. Not only fast, but very secure. They tell us it’s the only military code in modern history that was never broken by an enemy. Navajo code saved hundreds of thousands of lives in all these landings from Guadalcanal all the way to Okinawa and North China.


And then hill number two, as you described, where they needed help and they were in danger, there’s a great difference between 20 seconds and 30 minutes of sending the help to rescue. Hundreds of thousands of lives, literally.


As a matter of fact—


Can we just give some appreciation and applause?


As a matter of fact, Major Connor with the 5th Marine Division that landed on Iwo, he made a report to his superior, and that report that he made is also in the Marine Corps archives in Washington, D.C. In that report, Major Conner with the 5th Marine Division said the first 48 hours of Iwo Jima landing, over 800 messages were sent in Navajo code. That’s just one division. The other two Marine divisions, third and fourth, had similar traffic, so multiply 800 x 3. That’s over 2,000 Navajo code going through the air the first 48 hours of the Iwo Jima landing. Major Connor also said in his report—a copy of that report is in the Marine Corps archives. He said without Navajo, Marines would have never taken the island of Iwo Jima. That’s how valuable Navajo code was to all these landings in the Pacific. Navajo code. That’s why, upon discharge from the United States Marines in 1945 and ’46, they told us don’t tell anyone what you did. Because what you did is still top secret. You wait until Navajo code is declassified. And in the meantime, if someone asks you what you did in the war, like family or friends, just tell them you were radio man. That’s all. Nothing more. You wait until the code is declassified.


So we came home. Sure enough, people said, hey, what did you do in the war? Our answer: oh, nothing. We were just radio men. Don’t ask any more questions. That was our answer for 23 years. The Navajo code was not declassified until 1968, 23 years after the war ended. So we were radio men for 23 years. It was not until after 1968 that we learned by television, newspaper that Navajo code is officially declassified and now we can talk about it. It took a little time to record some of this stuff that we did because we pretty much put aside everything and went about our life, like University of Oklahoma and whatever.


And what was your degree in at Sooner Land? Your degree was in electrical engineering.


Yes, electrical engineering. That’s kind of a funny story.


Tell it! We want to hear it.


A sixth-grade dropout, my grandfather, told me after I finished sixth grade, when are you going to quit going to school? I said I don’t know. I said this thing goes for 12 years and I’m just in sixth grade. He said, look, do you understand English? I said yes. Do you know how to speak it? I said yes. Do you know how to write it? I said yes. Well, that’s it. You don’t need to learn any more. You know how to read it. You know how to write it. You know how to understand it. That’s it. Now what you need to learn, he tells me, is how to make a living. How to take care of yourself. If you get married, how to take care of your wife and your children. That’s what you need to learn, and you’re not learning that. All you learn is the English language and writing it. That’s it. So you need to quit, and I want to teach you how to make a living the Navajo way. So he wants me to learn to be a medicine man. It’s a five-year course, he tells me, to learn to be a medicine man. You learn the songs, the prayers, the history, the creation, and all the songs in that category. So he says the reason I want you to learn that is because that’s the Navajo way. He was a medicine man. He said somebody is ill. You cure that person by knowing different herbs that’s good for that ailment. Know the songs and prayers so that you can heal the mind as well. It takes five years. So if you stay with me for five years at the end, you’re going to be a medicine man.


So I dropped out in sixth grade, and now I’m now in school with my grandfather, learning to be a medicine man. Well, that only took about a year. I quit. Why? Because it was wartime, and a lot of Navajo kids were in defense plants somewhere, and they come home. And they got beautiful Tony Lama boots. Stetson, leather jacket. I’m telling you. And here I am, my tennis shoes have hole in it. My Levis have holes in the knees because my grandfather said, look, don’t worry about your clothes or your shoes. Forget about earthly stuff. You’ve got to communicate with the holy one. You’ve got to start communicating and think about that. Don’t think about yourself. Leave it alone. So at the end, that’s how you learn, he tells me. Well, I tried for one year, and my friends, I kept seeing these kids I was growing up with. They all have nice clothes. So finally I told my grandfather, I said, look, I’m going to quit. So I dropped out of sixth grade. I dropped out of medicine man school. Now I want to go get a job at age 14. I got a job. The first job I got was a sawmill. Boy, I got paid every week. Check’s in my billfold, not even cashed. Two months later, I figure I’ve got too many checks. I better quit. So I quit working. Got me a Stetson, Tony Lama boots. And I’ve got money in my pocket. I don’t need to work anymore. Well, that’s when I ran into my cousin Tom, age 15. I decided to join the Marines.


The uniform.


So when I came home, I was a sixth-grade dropout. And now, I’ve got all this GI Bill. You could go to school. Well, after just laying around for another year doing nothing, I decided maybe I should go back to school. But I don’t want to go back down to seventh grade cause I’m too old for that. So someone told me that there’s such a thing called GED. You could get your degree in one year and you’re going to college. So I tried it. Got my GED, went to Bacone College, junior college, cause I really didn’t know I could even make it in college with just sixth-grade education. Well, two years at junior college in Muskogee, Oklahoma at Bacone College. I was on dean’s honor roll all those two years. Graduation time. I was called to the dean’s office. The dean asked me, “Did you take an entrance exam? I don’t see it in your folder.” I said, no, no one told me about it. Well, he says, you’ve got to have that in order that we can graduate you. So I had to take this entrance exam and a week later he called me to his office. The dean of Bacone College. He asked me what did you do? I said, what do you mean, what did I do? You know. You took this test? Yes. I said why do you ask? He said, according to this entrance exam, you are a moron.


Dean’s list twice, but according to the exam, you’re a moron.


So he told me I was a moron. He said that’s not good because we cannot graduate you. I said, look, I got all the A’s and B’s that I’ve made in my classes. I was on dean’s honor roll. I said doesn’t that count? He said, yes, but you’ve got to have this entrance exam. You’ve got to pass that, because we should never have admitted you. Well, he made me take it over twice. The second time, I went to his office. He said, Pete, you are still a moron. That really got me here. You know. Just here I’m really feeling good because I’m making A’s and B’s in my classes. Eventually, to make the long story short, Bacone College faculty, presidents, I guess, had their meetings and decided to go ahead and graduate me. So I’ve got my diploma. Now I’ve still got the GI bill. Right? So I went to University of Oklahoma, and I enrolled there. My advisor asked me what do I want to major in. I said something that’s very difficult. And he asked me why. And I told him this story about being a moron. I said I know I’m not a moron, and I want you to give me the toughest course that I can take. Well, he says, we’ve got a lot of tough courses: engineering, geology, petroleum, architectural, mechanical, or electrical. Those are all tough courses. I said which one of those do you think is toughest? He said, well, electrical engineering. I said I’ll take that one. So he looks at my Bacone Junior College record and says you know what? You’re short on math. In order to get into engineering school, you’ve got to have geometry, solid geometry, differential calculus, interval calculus, and trigonometry. You don’t have all of those. So in order to get you into engineering school, you’ve got to have all of these. Okay, I said, I’ll take all of them. Some of these are requisites to the others. So I’ve got to take this one first before I take the other one. This semester you take differential. Next semester you get interval calculus. I said, no, I want to take all of them at one time. He thought I was crazy. I said, look, I don’t like this stigma that they gave me about being a moron. I want to prove that I can pass any test. I don’t care what it is, except this thing that I took.


So eventually, he convinced the university to let me take all of those five math courses in one semester.


One semester.


One semester. And I was having a difficult time. I went to engineering school the next semester, and I graduated. Got my degree, not the tough student. I got one that said Bacone College. But halfway through my University of Oklahoma, Dr. Azelle was his name, who was a professor at Bacone College. An English professor. He was working on his PhD at Tulsa University. He came to visit me at University of Oklahoma, and he told me, look. He said I’ll use you to get my PhD degree at Tulsa. I said what do you mean? He said, yeah, I know what you went through. You failed that entrance exam and you almost didn’t graduate from Bacone. But there was a decision made for you to be given a diploma anyway. But my thesis was why did you fail that test while making all the A’s in all the other subjects. He showed me about <gestures> that thick about what he did. This is my work on Peter MacDonald, he said. He said to make the long story short, he said if Einstein had taken that same test that you took and came out a moron, if that same test was written in Navajo, Einstein would have come out a moron, too. So I felt better with my electrical engineering degree. And now I need to go to work.


Back in the 50s, after Sputnik, across the United States, everybody was looking for…all those companies were looking for engineers. We were getting offers from different companies like Douglas, McDonnell Aircraft, Boeing, Northrup, and all these others. They were offering us a good entrance salary. I asked my advisor. I said, look, I’m’ getting all these offers. And now which one should I take? He said, well—I showed him the list. One of them was Hughes Aircraft. He said if I were you, I would take Hughes. I said why? He said, look… I said why. These other companies like McDonnell, Douglas, and Northrup, they offer me big money. And Hughes is a little bit lower. So shouldn’t I take the highest offer? He said no. All these companies you mentioned are owned by families. So no matter how good you are, you can only go up so far in your field. All top positions are occupied by family members, so you’ll never get to be vice president. You start down here, and then the rest is reserved for family members. But Hughes, he says, only one man. He doesn’t have a wife, doesn’t have children. It’s just one man, so you can get as close to Howard Hughes if you’re capable. If you’re determined to do that. So I decided to go with Hughes and start working with Howard Hughes. And at that time, he was working with military contracts for F106. And the first thing I did, he put me in charge of a little power unit for F106 that works in foreign positions from their wings. And I discovered that that system was designed wrong. And the project engineer, I told this is designed wrong. He looks at me and he said, look, you’re just three months out of university and you tell me that Hughes’ PhD engineers at Culver City have designed this thing wrong? He said they’re on airplanes already. I said, yeah, according to my calculation, it’s wrong. Well, finally I convinced him, so he took me to Culver City, to Hughes’ top engineering staff. Pushed me in through the door with that little unit, and they all greeted us and said what’s the problem. He said this Indian says you guys are designing these things wrong. He didn’t want to admit it. He pushed me and he said I did it. So of course they were like, okay, chief. What are we doing wrong? So I went to the blackboard and started calculating how this unit is designed all the way across. And they’re looking at me. At just about that time, a gentleman with a suede jacket and a turtleneck shirt came walking in with two guys with a suit and tie. That was Howard.


Howard Hughes.


With two customers. So he asked his scientists—scientist guys. PhDs in all categories designing these things. So he, Howard Hughes, said, okay, gentleman. What’s going on around here? And they pointed at me out by the blackboard, writing this thing down. He said this Indian is telling us about what we designed.


Peter, we’re just about out of time, but we want to know: Did you solve the problem?


Yes! To make a long story short, Hughes asked me to go back to the reservation and recruit 10 more Navajo.


Thank you very much.




Read more about Peter MacDonald on the ISC  website.