PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- As we remember all those who have served our country proudly, all we have to do is look into our own backyard to find the truest of American heroes, the Navajo Code Talkers.
It was 1944 and World War II was well underway. A teenager by the name of Peter MacDonald was living in the Navajo Reservation and wanted to be a Marine after seeing another Marine dressed in his “Blues.”
“I asked Tom, 'Hey, how do I get one of those?' He said, 'Join the Marines.' I said, 'I want to do that' but then he asked how old I was. He said, 'You can't do that, you have to be at least 17 years old to join the Marines.' I said, 'They don't know, I don’t have a birth certificate since I was born in a field,'" according to MacDonald.
So, Peter fibbed about his age and enlisted, becoming one of the great Navajo Code Talkers. Navajo Code Talkers were able to use their native language to strategically transmit tactical information during the war. Peter describes how it worked.
“Messages start coming in, we write it down in English and hand it to the Navy runners standing behind us 24 hours a day. He takes it up to the bridge, gives it to the general or admiral, they read it and respond with the runner bringing it back down. If on top of that message it says 'Arizona,' 'New Mexico,' we send that message wherever it's intended in Navajo code," he said.
But he wasn’t the first to do it. There were 29 original Navajo Code Talkers who tested the language in the earlier years of the war with huge success at the recommendation of Philip Johnston, a civil engineer for the City of Los Angeles. Johnston was a World War I veteran who was raised on the Navajo Reservation, so he knew how difficult the language was to learn and understand
“It’s very safe and secure, the Navajo language. Pronunciation of Navajo words are difficult to pronounce, some words sound the same as another word, with a small inflection with the tongue. There are many other reasons the Navajo language was chosen,” explains MacDonald.
It worked like no other, because many people, historians included, credit the Navajo Code Talkers for the success of the war.
Peter tells us how they felt when they finally heard of the success.
“Most of us, when we learned of this, we go, 'Oh wow that's us huh.' It made us feel good that we had something that was not of our own saying but someone else to say, 'Those dumb Indians, those good for nothing Indians' but are now saying if it weren't for the Navajos we would have never taken the island of Iwo Jima or any other islands that were very tough all through the war," he said.
However, the Navajo Code Talkers were never commended until 1968 when the program was declassified. In 1971, President Richard Nixon awarded them the Certificate of Appreciation. MacDonald would go on to meet many presidents and dignitaries receiving high praise from all walks of life.
But despite all the praise he deserves, he’s most proud of what he and the Navajo Code Talkers were able to accomplish historically.
“It’s the only military code in modern history never broken by an enemy they say. So, they like to use Navajo code for almost all code systems only though we were supposed to send top secret confidential messages,” proudly explained MacDonald.