Son of a Blitch

Ep. 42 - Peter McDonald Sr: The Fascinating Insight of a Navajo Code Talker during WWII

November 11, 2023 George Blitch Season 1 Episode 42
Son of a Blitch
Ep. 42 - Peter McDonald Sr: The Fascinating Insight of a Navajo Code Talker during WWII
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Prepare to be fascinated as we journey back in time to World War II, with none other than Peter McDonald Sr (Hashkasilt Begay), a Navajo Code Talker, to guide us through the gripping tale of the Navajo Code Talkers. We promise you'll be captivated by the extraordinary story of how the Navajo language transformed into an unbreakable military code, a tactic that saved countless American lives and changed the course of the war.

Our episode unfolds with the intriguing proposal by Philip Johnston, a man raised by the Navajo tribe, suggesting to the mighty US Marines to leverage the Navajo language as a secret code. We then transition into the heart of the matter: the construction of this intricate code, featuring an impressive array of 260 words symbolizing the English alphabet and various military organizations.

Amidst tales of planes, submarines, and explosives, we chart the role of the Navajo Code Talkers in the war and how their heroics remained a closely guarded secret until 1966.

To honor their legacy, we reflect on the increasing recognition they are receiving today, through films, literature, and even a dedicated museum. This tale of diversity and unity underpinning one of history's most crucial events will leave you in awe.

Peter is one of three Navajo Code Talkers still alive, as of this release, on 11/11/23

To learn more about Peter, visit:

To learn more about George Blitch, visit:

*This podcast is taken from a speech that David Marroquin recorded on the Navajo Reservation on June 17, 2011. Any background noise you may hear is because it was in a dining hall, and there were many in attendance during a meal. 

Speaker 1:

Hello everybody, welcome back to the Son of a Blitch podcast. I'm your host, george Blitch, and today I have a very special treat for you. It's a little bit different. Today you will be checking out a discussion that was had by Peter McDonald Sr, a Navajo Code Talker. This was recorded many years ago by a gentleman named David Marroquine, who's a family friend. He had reached out to me and said he had this recording and he wanted to see if I wanted to do anything with it. He knew that I had done a lot of work with Indigenous elders Native American Indian elders and he entrusted me with doing something with it. We had this discussion a few years ago, before I had ever had a podcast, and when I finally got these files recently, I realized this is a perfect avenue putting this out on Veterans Day. So this is something that the setting is Peter's giving a talk on the Navajo Reservation. It's kind of a luncheon format, so you'll hear some background noise for those who are listening and just know that there's people moving about serving food and everything too. So that's kind of why you're kind of hearing some of that background noise there too. But I just felt like it's very important to put this out. I cleaned it up a little bit, the audio, but you're still going to hear some things in the background. So again, that's the setting. Peter McDonald Sr talks about the use of the Navajo language and developing it in the Navajo Code. It was the only unbreakable military code saved thousands of American lives. Historically, in World War I the military started working with some Native American Indians. They worked with the Choctaw. They had the Choctaw Telephone Squad, but after that they really started to try to recruit some people during World War II to be able to establish a Native Code Talkers. And so Peter talks all about the history of that and kind of decipheres how they came up with the code and why it was so important. So it's something that I feel like is just historically a monumental thing to take note of and to check out. I just feel honored that it kind of fell in my lap and that I can be able to springboard it out into the world and especially do something on Veterans Day. Veterans are my heroes. I just want to say thank you to all of you, happy Veterans Day for all that have served and all that have sacrificed and their families who have sacrificed as well. And I just wanted to kind of give back a little bit with a series of podcasts on Veterans Day, and I'm going to be doing a lot more veteran podcasts and organizations that work with veterans and mental health and different wellness and physical rehab People who are really trying to get back to our veterans, because that's something I really strongly believe in and support. I hope you do too. So, once again, thank you guys for listening. I'm so blessed, david. Thank you for sending me this and allowing me to put this out in the world and, without further ado, here is the podcast of the discussion that was had at the Navajo Reservation with Peter McDonald Sr in Navajo Code Talk Del and Joy. This talk was in progress when the recording began.

Speaker 2:

When we were what we were going to do, what we were carrying, and they had no problem intercepting shipments of supplies or troops with their submarine or with their aircraft carrier. They're very aggressive. They came down through China, burma, down into New Guinea, even in the Philippines as you know, the story of the Con, the Rigador they just took every major islands in the Pacific, even Guam, which was America's possession at the time, wake Island. They were down into the Solomon Islands, right next door to Australia, and still the United States trying to get going, having a difficulty with communication. So one guy suggested one arm, we use the Navajo language. Well, this one guy's name is Philip Johnston. And there you go, just like you, blue eyes, blond hair guy, and uh, how does he know? He was born? He was born off the reservation but was raised on the reservation as a young boy. His parents were missionaries to Navajo, so he was out here sometime herding sheep with Navajo kids, learned some words at Navajo Serving World War. I, godav, was working in Los Angeles, went down to San Diego where the Marine Corps faces and told the Marines hey, why don't you guys use the Navajo language as your code? Because you're having trouble with it Getting started. The enemy knows every move you make. You might as well just call them up and tell them what you're going to do. So of course the Marines didn't know anything about Navajos. They didn't even know where we existed, they didn't even know where we lived. But they convinced it. But for Navajos to San Diego, they demonstrated how this thing might work. Of course, Marine Corps was somewhat impressed and decided well, let's try it. So they asked permission from Washington to use the Navajo language as a code. Well, the Commodata of the United States Marine Corps said what do you mean? Use the Navajo language as a code? We don't know. We were told that this thing works, but we saw it as possibilities. So we need some Navajos. Well, you got to ask the Navajo tribe if you could use their language. So they did. Navajo tribe said no problem, go ahead. Well, I guess they know Marine Corps, they know Navajo language. But what they also requested was we want some of your young people. So they asked Marines if they could recruit Navajos and organize them as code-bockers. Well, marine Corps said no, no, no, we don't know these Navajos. They're not embarrassed, we're proud Marines. Anybody who wears the uniform of the United States Marine has to be a Marine and we don't want to lose these guys running around Marine Corps uniform unless they pass the test. So if you want to recruit Navajos what you would authorize you to do we'll only authorize you to recruit 30. And see how they make up, put them through boot camp, put them through some combat training and if they pass all of that, then go ahead with your project of using the language to develop a code that you're talking about. So with that authorization, marine recruiters came out here and they're dressed blues Chinese shoes but they didn't realize but said no highway out here, they're in trails, so they had to trail by horseback. So they're training posts, they're training posts and that was too much. Besides that, other preserved a nice crease they have in there, blue Unipart. They discovered that there were three major boarding schools on the reservation One on the east side, one in the central, one on the west side. These are US government boarding schools where they put us to school to learn the English language, write the English language. So they went to these schools and made the announcement that we are recruiting young men to fight the war in the Pacific. Well, never hold young men, for whatever reasons, mostly, I guess, patriotic raise their hands and say I want to go. So they volunteer 30 of them, bust them down to San Diego and there they put them through boot camp. Well, much of their surprise boot camp was nothing compared to how we lived out here. So then they put them through combat training and they made it with light colors rifle range. Most of them became experts, rifle and shop shooters. Then, after all of that training, now this is February of 1942. After all that training, then they brought them into a building like this with a high fence all the way around Clarks, and they brought them in there, these 30 young Navajos, and told them that you're Marines now Went through boot camp, combat training. Now we want you to develop a code in your language. This is the first time they heard about it here. They want to fight and now they're told they're developing code using their language. Well, this kind of surprise them, because when we are put in a boarding school, we are prohibited from speaking our language. All these government schools that were in existence at that time. I was put in a boarding school when I was nine years old, but in boarding school they tell you no more talking. Now we don't want even for you to utter one Navajo word. No singing, no practice of your religion or culture. It's behind you now Just speak English. We catch you talking Navajo with punitive, and I'm telling you they mean what they said, because Navajo is your first language. Every now and then you can't have but a word or two comes out. They catch you. They take this huge government yellow government soap. They put it in your mouth and just rub it as hard as they could until you can't take it anymore. Horrible. They catch you again, they make you get down on the floor and disrupt the floor, bastard, whatever Real, severe punishment for speaking Navajo, the language. Well, here they are, san Diego, put in a new room and were told use your language and develop a code. Well, what would you say Now? These 30 guys there talk to each other, but the colonel said the only person present besides them was the colonel. He was sitting in there, gave them some tablets, a huge blackboard. They used that blackboard. Here's some paper and pencil. Write it down, but whatever you do stays in the room. So when we went through a cold school like that, as we leave the building, they searched us. Make sure we don't have any notes with us as we leave the building and the compound until we get back next morning to go through the training or school. Well, one guy said wait a minute, this might be another government trick. You remember we were told not to use our language and we were severely punished when we did. This. May be one of those tricks. So they look around for yellow soap holes in the room. Now they didn't find it. They asked the colonel the same question. We just came just a few weeks ago from Navajo, where we can speak our language. The colonel said no, no, no, no. Use the language however you want to, and here's a sample code that military sends to one another. So they got the sample codes, they look at it and they saw that the messages were all in English. English alphabet A, b, c, d, f, down to Z. That was the first problem. Why? Because Navajo is not a written language, so we don't have a word for A or B or C or Z. So how do you send something that we don't even have words for? So they sent there and scratched their heads. With meantime, colonel sits there smoking his pipe and one guy suggested look, when we went to school we learned a lot of words, english words that starts with these letters. Like he said, like bilasana, bilasana is apple. In Navajo it starts with A. So what do we call A, bilasana? So went to the blackboard A equals bilasana, apple. So that would be the word code word for the letter A, about B. Well, they thought a little bit. One guy said in the summertime we take our sheep to the mountain and there we see a lot of shush. Shush in Navajo is bear. Bear starts with B, so B equals shush Bear. Now they cut out their rolls About C. A lot of hands go up. So I know, I know, I know about mussel. Mussel in Navajo is cat, so C, they called mussel and they went down the line D. Well, another small hands go up back in the classroom and say we hunt for, we go hunting and we hunt for beef, so D equals beef. So they developed words for all the letters of the English alphabet, all the way down to Z. When they got down to Z, one guy said hey, I know one of the weeks called Z Nasteje. Nasteje in Navajo is zuni. He said try to stop us. And then the guy said no, no, no, zuni may not like us using their name, so let's get another word. And they were told that whatever word that they're developing using should be as difficult and simple as Navajo is possible. So they said OK, what do we call Z, best or finished? Well, why do you say that OK, best or finished in Navajo is Z, so Z equals best or finished. Now they got all the words for every letter in the English alphabet. Now they're on the road. Now they could at least spell it out whatever is in the message. But that's too long. Now we don't have words for military organization like division, battalion, regiment, company, platoon, so we need to develop words for those. Well, one guy said we don't have an army, so we don't have anything like that, but we do have plans. So why don't we name these different organizations by plan that we have? I belong to Yaka Group Plan and want for Fold and Arm Plan, some belong to Bitter Water Plan, some belong to Salt Plan, muck Plan. So the company was like let's say Ashin, that Salt Plan. So the word company, we say Ashin, salt Plan, and then battalion, we say Hush-Kish-Nee, that's Muck Plan, so battalion would be Hush-Kish-Nee. So they developed words for all the different military organizations and then they went on to the next part all the military equipment that is used, including different kinds of airplanes, different kinds of ships, all of that, for instance, aircraft carrier. What do we call aircraft carrier? Well, if an aircraft carrier, one guy said what do we call aircraft carrier? Tiddy-nay, yeah, what's Tiddy-Nay? Yeah, you never hope. That is one that carries birds. So aircraft carrier would be Tiddy-Nay. You have one that carries birds. How about submarine, submarine? Another guy suggested fish. So fish. So it never hope is iron fish, so submarine would be iron fish. And they got names for battleships, destroyers. All of that All written down and you don't take the notes, you leave them in the room, walk out, come back in the morning and you go over it again. Memorize. They told us to memorize, use your memory. Only you cannot take notes with you. That's why they search us. Well, they got down to some other items like hand grenade. One guy holding a hand grenade. So what do we call that? We don't have hand grenade. On the risk they should. We don't have no worse one. So one guy said I know we have a lot of these at home. What is it? No mercy? What's no Massey in Navajo Potato? So hangar, they would be no Massey Potato Bomb. Well, you know, we were told bomb is carried by a big airplane and they drop it all in Bombs into a place and destroy them. So what do we have on the receipt? The reason why they stick into things they know on the reservation is because they have to memorize them, so it's easy to memorize something that you're very familiar with. So one guy suggested what do we call bomb Ayeshi? Ayeshi in Navajo is eggs. Why eggs? He said well, we got a chicken. They sit there and all send a lot of eggs. We understand that it's terribly, drop a lot of eggs. So ayeshi Bomb, because ayeshi have a hand trap and the unit that actually is used to carry the troops up to the beach can operate in water and then can actually get on the land and go as far as they can on the beach with you. What do we call them? Emtras? One guy said how about chas? Chas and Navajo is frog, so an Emtras would be frog Chas. So they got all those words in the meantime, the colonel sitting there getting impatient. He said you know now, you guys have been at this thing for four weeks Now we need to get going. The Japanese are really taking all those islands and we're told that we're going to move. So they got at this point about 260 words, code words that they have written down and they all 30 of them know what it is. So it's time for a test. So they put, and after this they put us through regular communications, they take us out of the building to another location. All the submarines who are in the signal battalions, those who would be radio men, they're doing their training there. We learned how to send Mars code some of them were like the Navy guys and also learned how to operate the radio they had at that time. These were very heavy, cumbersome units. Heavy, but 30, 40 pounds. Only wish that they had something like this back in Bloomingham. It would have been nice to just carry this like this and run out onto the beach, but we had to carry all that stuff. In some cases it takes two people to carry a radio unit. But anyway, we learned all of that After that. Then practice comes in. We get separated one group on that side and another group over behind the hill and then there's the right code. We send it using the code we developed to the other unit on the other side and they write it down and it's becoming very perfect now and there are only some problems. They put in some commas, some of the pollutants and colon and these passengers, but we got no words for that. So they said, well, this is great, but you didn't put a comma or a period or a semicolon. So we got back to the classroom. What do we do? Well, I said, that's easy. What do we call a semicolon? That's what we're going to call it. What is the word? You said Never A black dot that lost its tail. That's what we called it. Who's that? Oh, we tried again. So they designed the code as difficult as they could and it goes from this group to the other groups and they're completely perfect, no mistake. The other thing about the code was that if they were to scramble that same code in the regular military code system it would take time, but this one only took 20 seconds from point A to point B. The code, the message is delivered, regular coding 40 minutes. You have to select the code you would use. Depends on what the classification is Scramble it, write the scramble down and then send that scramble message. The other guy writes it down in a scramble form and then he goes, find the code, descrambles it or decycles it and then the message is there. That takes time but also more repetition, the more subject to mistakes. So they relay all of this back to Washington and say, okay, time to go. So the First Marine Division was now ready. They were in Australia getting ready to do their first offensive landing in the World War II in the Pacific. They sent seven Navajo Code Talkers to Australia to join this First Marine Division. So August 7, 1942, the first landing in the Pacific, first offensive movement on the part of the United States, was the landing of the First Marine Division on Bwala Khanan. Seven Navajo Code Talkers went in with the first wave. It was beautiful. General Vandevri, who was in charge of the first re-division, larded back to the United States. Hey, this Navajo code is terrific. We didn't understand it, the Japanese didn't understand it, but it works. So we need more Navajo. So the Marines came back out here and started recruiting and massing when. That's how I went in during 1944. At the age of 15. Because I liked the uniform. The bees hurt and sheep left. So at the height of the war there were 430 of us who went to the code school, went through boot camp combat training like everybody else and then served in every division of the United States Marine First Division, second, third, fourth, fifth and Six. I was with the First Marine Division at first, 22nd Marines and then ended up with Six Marine Division. So every division had allocation of co-tops and every landing from Quarrel Canal, hoganville, new Guinea, new Britain, keplerster, makin, tarot, saqpan, tinian Waal, palo, lund, iwo Jima, kowajaland, andui Tok, okinawa, even in North China, I went, I ended up in North China. All those, every island, every land, co-tops, some on ship where the generals and emeralds are, others on the beach in the front lines, relayed messages and top secret messages that report casualties, messages that report situations on the beach, requesting different things that need immediate. All of that in Navajo was to give you an example of what it sounds like. This is a national message that was sent on Iwo Jima, on the North side of the island, just past the airport. Here it is three hills. Between those hills the company Marines were pinned down. They couldn't move, they were getting slashed. So Navajo Papa sends this message saying Depend on chief beef, that is, try to not slander, to change the children, to not start to start, not to kick to start. That was the message sent from the front line to the command post on the beach. Well, obviously you didn't understand that. Japanese didn't understand it either. Let's see if you pipe that same message to the reservation, the forward Navajo here, because they understand the words. But they heard what people say Shinshin, eyes, nose, dear destroyers, lip and tea, mouse, turkey, onion, sick horse, three, six, two bear. Remember the words bear? So that's the message. Well, never would we sit down here. You see, I don't sound like us guys going nuts. They're going to come home. So you don't understand it. Japanese don't understand it. The emeralds and generals offshore and underbeaches don't understand it. But the Navajo at the command post on the beach riding the same down send demolition team to hill. Three, six, two B. That was the message. So the message was so difficult. Not even the Navajo would understand what we're talking about, except if they had gone through this code which was secret. So the message, using the language, not only quick, effective, unbreakable, the only military code in the history of modern military history never broken by an enemy. And during that first 48 hours of Iwo Chima invasion, colonel Conner, fifth Marine Division communication director, made a report saying that during the first 48 hours of Iwo Chima land. Over 800 messages were sent. Navajo code and he said also in his report had it not for Navajo code, marines would not have taken the island. That's a lot coming from Marine Corps code, because we Marines are very proud, we think we could do anything. Just tell us what island you want, we won't go get it. That was the slogan. So the code that was developed in 1942, it was all the way through the Pacific War and every landing Save thousands, thousands of lives. It was so good that when we were discharged from service we were told not to talk about it. Don't talk about what you did. If anybody asks you to tell me you were a radio man, that's it, no more. So when we got home, people asked what we did. We said, well, we were radio. That's it Got all about it Until 1966, all of a sudden we start reading the newspaper Navajo Code Talkers into World War II. We read it and someone said, hey, that's us, we were Code Talkers. That's the first time we learned that we were Code Talkers, but all the time we were told we were radio men. Well, after 1966, 20 years after the war, Navajo Code was declassified and then we were able to talk about it, but most of us have gotten a great deal about it. What it is that we did. We had to go back and talk about it every minute and we set up an organization called Navajo Code Talker Association so we can get together and talk about it. What do we do on evil? What do we do on pallor? What do we do on the ground? And we started remembering what it is that we really did and how we did it. So the Code obviously was one of the best in the Pacific and for that reason they kept it secret, because they said they may want to use it again. But after 20 years they probably failed. More people are learning Navajo and there's no need for it anymore. And they declassified. So it was not until after that time we started being recognized. A movie was made called Wind Talker by Nicholas Cage and some other documentaries. Books were written about Navajo Code Talkers and now, as we're trying to establish a museum called National Navajo Code Talker Museum and hopefully the legacy of the Navajo Code Talkers will live on, Because it's not only Navajo legacy but America's legacy, your legacy, your children, your grandchildren, my children, my grandchildren need to know how diverse people living together can pool their resources to protect the freedom that we have today. That's what I believe is really the story of Navajo Code Talkers. Is that how we all have certain talents and certain skills and pooling that together as Americans and protect this country that we love so dear. Thank you very much.

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