Code talkers share stories, honor Native Americans, vets
Navajo Code Talkers Peter Macdonald (left) and Roy Hawthorne participated in a ceremony Nov. 10, 2010, at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. to pay tribute to veterans and to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. (U.S. Air Force photo)
by Stefan Bocchino
377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
11/22/2010 - KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Two members of the World War II Navajo Code Talkers took part in a ceremony Nov. 10 here to pay tribute to veterans and to celebrate Native American heritage month.
Peter MacDonald and Roy Hawthorne were both Navajo Code Talkers during World War II. As with all code talkers, they served in the Marine Corps. Although both men served as a code talkers, they came into the service in different ways.
Peter MacDonald was 15 in 1944 and wanted to work for the Union Pacific Railroad. To do that, he had to prove he was 17. His cousin suggested going to the selective service office to get a card. That way they could prove they were 17.
"Me and my cousin went to the selective service office and asked for a card," Mr. MacDonald said. "They asked me how old I was and I said '17.' They said, 'Do you have a witness?' and I said, 'Yes, my cousin.' So I signed, and he signed, and they handed us the cards."
After working for the railroad for about four months, Mr. MacDonald received a letter from selective service to report for a physical. He was then drafted into the Marines.
Mr. MacDonald said he had no idea of the Navajo Code Talkers when he went in. He went to boot camp and combat training before being sent to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for code training.
"After combat training, the Marines said they had a special program for us," Mr. Macdonald said. "We were not referred to as code talkers. We were referred to as radiomen. Our job was to use our language in coded fashion. The Navajo language was coded so not even a Navajo listening would understand it."
After training, Mr. Macdonald was sent to Hawaii, Guam and then finally to North China. He was there at the end of the war and did not get back home until 1946.
Roy Hawthorne volunteered for military service in 1943. He wanted to join the Navy and go on submarines. However, since he was a Navajo, he was directed into the Marines.
"I wanted to join the silent service," Mr. Hawthorne said. "I had just read Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." They said 'no, all Navajo males are directed to join the Marine Corps.' They were recruiting heavily for code talkers, but we didn't know that."
During the war, Mr. Hawthorne was deployed to Guadalcanal, off the coast of Australia. He was part of the second or third group of code talkers trained. After boot camp and combat training, he went to code school at Camp Pendleton. Only then did he learn what they would be doing.
"It didn't mean a great deal to us, other than that we were in the military service," Mr. Hawthorne said. "That's where we wanted to be."
After the war ended, Mr. Hawthorne was discharged from the military. He was told not to discuss the code with anyone. The code was not declassified until 1968. Mr. Hawthorne rejoined the military in 1950 and served in the Korean War, but not as a code talker. Many of the code talkers did not realize the significance of their service until after the code was declassified.
When asked why it took so long for the code to be declassified, Mr. Hawthorne's initial answer was tinged with humor.
"It gave us adequate time to make up some real good war stories."
"Only when the code was declassified did the enormity of the task that was given to us emerge," he said. "I suppose it made us happy that we were chosen to serve our country in that way."
The seed for the code talkers was sown by a non-Navajo, Philip Johnston. He was the son of missionaries who grew up on the Navajo reservation and was one of only a few non-Navajos who spoke the language fluently.
"Philip Johnston learned the language and the way of the Navajo. During World War I he had this idea that if we needed a code that would be unbreakable, it probably would be based on the Navajo language," Mr. Hawthorne said. "He renewed his idea about the code in World War II."
Efforts have begun to establish a Navajo Code Talker Marine Corps military academy as well as a Navajo Code Talker museum. The museum will be a showcase for all Native American military veterans.
"I think it's very important to remember the legacy of the code talkers; particularly for this generation and the generations to come," he said.
The code talker program was established in 1942 and used through World War II. The code was never broken, and was not declassified until 1968.
The code talkers were finally recognized for their contributions Sep. 17, 1992, in a ceremony at the Pentagon.