The Navajo Code Talkers helped the U.S. military transmit messages securely during World War II by using a code based on the Navajo language.
Navajo Code Talker Peter MacDonald delivers a talk at Lincoln Laboratory on May 30. Photo: Glen Cooper
Navajo Code Talker Peter MacDonald delivers a talk at Lincoln Laboratory on May 30. Photo: Glen Cooper

On May 30, Lincoln Laboratory hosted Peter MacDonald, one of the last living Navajo Code Talkers from World War II. The event was part of the Laboratory's annual Cyber Technology for National Security (CTNS) workshop, and also served as the Memorial Day commemoration. The event was a collaboration between CTNS organizers, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), and three employee resource groups —the Lincoln Laboratory Veterans Network (LLVETS), Lincoln Laboratory Hispanic/Latinx Network (HLN), and New Employee Network. Staff packed into the Laboratory's auditorium until only standing room remained.

"The Navajo Code Talkers, whose native language proved to be unbreakable to enemy forces during World War II, remind us that diversity is one of our country's greatest assets," said Amanda Martinez, principal diversity and inclusion officer of the ODI. "Embracing our languages, cultures, and perspectives can be essential to our national security. The Code Talkers taught us that those once marginalized can become our greatest defenders."              

The event began with a tribute by Matthew Mills, a pilot at the Laboratory's Flight Test Facility, to veterans and prisoners of war/missing-in-action service members, also called the Missing Man Table ceremony.         

After a land acknowledgment by Martinez, Elena Zorn of the Advanced Concepts and Technologies Group, who serves as a co-chair of HLN, introduced Peter MacDonald and brought him to the stage. MacDonald was born in Arizona on the Navajo Reservation, the largest Native American reservation in the United States. At age six, MacDonald entered a day school where he learned the English language. When MacDonald was 15, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps.        

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States realized that none of their codes were safe — that the enemy was breaking all of them. Philip Johnston, who had grown up on the Navajo reservation after his parents moved there as missionaries, had the idea to use the Navajo language, a completely unwritten language known only to a small group, for military code. In 1942, the Marines recruited 29 young Navajos to test the program. The code was developed at a secret location and consisted of 230 words. The entire program was top secret, and the code was never to be written down because of the risk of it being broken. After a successful first mission at Guadalcanal in the Pacific where the code went unbroken, the Marines started recruiting more Navajos to go to Navajo Code School and from then on, they sent more than a dozen code talkers to every landing.        

The way the code worked, MacDonald explained, was in combination with the English language; when the Marines would land on the beach, the code talkers would be the first to land. The code talkers on land would convey the positions of the guns to the code talkers on the ship (six of them sitting around a table), who would write down the code in English. The runners would then bring the message to the general on the top of the ship, who would respond in English, and the code talkers would send a message back out in Navajo. The English language network and the Navajo language network, MacDonald explained, worked side by side.        

MacDonald shared a specific instance where the code talkers were crucial in battle: at Iwo Jima. In 1945, more than 200 Navajo code talkers, spread out in three Marine divisions, landed at Iwo Jima. The company on the north side of the island ran into trouble and were in a desperate position, being fired at from all sides. The company commander put out a message to the code talker, who conveyed it to the Navy command ship.        

"What did they hear this guy say when asking for help?" MacDonald said. "This is what he said in Navajo: 'sheep, eyes, nose, deer, destroyer, turkey, onion, seahorse, three, six, four, bear.' Doesn’t sound like asking for help! That's what Navajo on the reservation would have heard. But to the code talker receiving this message at the beach command post...what did he write down? He wrote down 'Send demolition team to hill 362b.' That was the message. So, that message, in 20 seconds, Navajo code, [was] received."       

The Marines on the command ship took action and sent help. During the first 48 hours of that battle at Iwo Jima, there were more than 800 messages per unit, meaning there were 2,400 messages total, and Navajo code was going through the air every minute for two days straight. MacDonald shared that Major Connor, the signal officer at Iwo Jima, said, "Were it not for the Navajo, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."

Navajo code is the only code in modern military history that has never been broken. It wasn't declassified until 23 years after it was used. MacDonald reflected on what the military told him after the war. “Your code is still top secret; don't tell anyone what you did until it's declassified, [they said]. 'In the meantime, if you have parents or anyone else that asks you what you're doing in the war, just tell them you were radio men, that's all, no more.'" The code was later declassified due to the spread of the Navajo language.       

"I know I was just given a few minutes to tell you a story, " MacDonald finished. "But I think you really need to know that these 400+ Navajo code talkers really did a super job of developing a code that was the only military code they tell us in modern history that was never broken by an enemy: Navajo code."

MacDonald received a standing ovation from the packed auditorium.        

"What I found particularly inspiring about Mr. MacDonald's talk was his description of the persistence and resilience that he and his fellow code talkers needed to have in order to be successful," said Marc Zissman, associate division head of the Cyber Security and Information Sciences Division and CTNS host. "Through their acquisition and demonstration of exquisite skills, the code talkers proved time and again that Native Americans could serve as highly effective Marines, overcoming the systemic bias of the times within the U.S. Armed Services and the nation as a whole."

Peter MacDonald and his family gather with employee resource group members, CTNS organizers, and ODI staff who helped organize the event.
Peter MacDonald and his family gather with employee resource group members, CTNS organizers, and ODI staff who helped organize the event.

"As a veteran, I had the opportunity to serve with many amazing people over my career of 28 years,” said Ronald Ross, a technical staff member in the Advanced Undersea Systems and Technology Group and LLVETS co-chair. "Those experiences collectively did not measure up to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I just experienced listening to a true American hero. Not only did Peter MacDonald serve in the most elite military branch of service, but he was part of a group that made what was one of the greatest contributions to the U.S. efforts in World War II. Mr. MacDonald's life history is nothing short of spectacular and I'm really glad I had an opportunity to listen to his story at the Laboratory. The story of the Navajo Code Talkers is an important part of American history."