WHITE SHIELD, N.D. — Peter MacDonald Sr. had a significant role in saving lives during World War II and helping the U.S. win the war. He was one of 400 Navajo Code Talkers in the U.S. Marine Corps during the war.
The Navajo Code Talkers transmitted top secret messages in every major battle in the Pacific Theater.
MacDonald, one of eight surviving Navajo Code Talkers, will be the guest speaker at this year’s traditional Memorial Day services in White Shield on the Fort Berthold Reservation.
Austin Gillette, former commander of the Joseph Young Hawk-Elmer Bear American Legion Post in White Shield and a former chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, extended an invitation to MacDonald on behalf of the White Shield Legion Post to speak at the services. Gillette and MacDonald have known each other for more than 40 years.
The White Shield community will hold its traditional Memorial Day services on May 30. A salute will begin at 11 a.m. at the Old Scouts Cemetery, west of the community, followed by the service in the Ralph Wells Jr. Memorial Complex.
The Navajo Code Talkers are one of the most storied units in U.S. military history. MacDonald, 90, lives in Tuba City, Ariz., and is president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association. He’s also working to raise funds to build a National Navajo Code Talkers Museum to honor these heroes of World War II.
The U.S. Marine Corps first recruited 29 young Navajos for the top-secret operation starting in 1942. After boot camp and combat training they went to communication school, then were separated from the other Marines to create the military code used in the Pacific, according to MacDonald. The code was first used that year, and more Navajos were recruited for the operation.
MacDonald joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1944 when he was 15. He was with the 1st Marine Brigade on Guam and then went on to North China with the 6th Marine Division from 1944-46.
The Navajo code was the only military code in modern history never broken by an opposing force.
“The Navajo language was a code and only 400 of us knew it,” said MacDonald in a summer 2013 documentary, “Peter MacDonald — A Journey of Perseverance,” made by students at Winona (Minn.) State University and Dine’ College at Tsaile, Ariz.
He said the reason the Navajo Code Talkers were so successful during World War II is because their language is all verbal and subject to memory only. He said Navajo is not a written language and America was looking for a code that the enemy in the Pacific would not understand and could not break.
He said the code worked well even though there were up to 600 code words that the code talkers had to know and remember instantly when someone would start repeating them over the air to write down.
For example, he said a company of Marines was pinned down on the north side of the island of Iwo Jima, and the commander needed help. The commander wrote a message and gave it to the Navajo Code Talker covering the front line. The code talker would verbally send the code words to the Command Post by the beach, asking for help. At the Command Post, the code talker there quickly wrote down the message. Immediately, help was sent to save the company of Marines who were pinned down.
“It was used to save thousands of lives and also help pinpoint where the enemy were,” MacDonald said in the documentary.
MacDonald was discharged from the Marine Corps as a corporal in October 1946 and returned to Teecnospos, Ariz. He graduated from Bacone High School, has a social science degree from Bacone Junior College and an electrical engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma. After college graduation in 1957, he went to work for Howard Hughes at Hughes Aircraft Company, working on missile projects.
MacDonald was chairman of the Navajo Nation, re-elected for an unprecedented four terms. He is a recipient of the Congressional Silver Medal for heroic service to the nation as a U.S. Marine Corps Navajo Code Talker, among his many honors.
The Navajo Code Talkers were not recognized for their achievements during World War II for many years because the operation was classified by the military. In 1968, the military declassified the operation. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared Aug. 14 as Navajo Code Talkers Day.
In November 2017, President Trump honored the Navajo Code Talkers at an event at the White House with MacDonald and two other Navajo Code Talkers, Fleming Begaye Sr. and Thomas Begay, attending.
During his presentation about the Navajo Code Talkers at the White House, MacDonald said, “What we did truly represents who we are as Americans. America, we know, is composed of diverse community. We have different languages, different skills, different talents and different religion. But when our way of life is threatened, like the freedom and liberty that we all cherish, we come together as one. And when we come together as one, we are invincible. We cannot be defeated.” He said that was why a National Navajo Code Talker Museum is needed, so future generations can go through the museum and “learn why America is strong.”
The president told them he would help build the museum.