Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bill Toledo, Navajo Code Talker, 
Tells His Story in the East Village
Everyone knew the moment he entered Cooper’s Craft  Kitchen in the East Village.  The words “he’s here,” passed from one person to the next. Even the weekly Thursday night football gang, with beer mugs in hand, watching ESPN on the television intently, turned to the entrance where Bill Henry Toledo stood.

Bill Toledo, a World War ll veteran and a Navajo Code Talker came to New York City as part of LaSalle’s Academy’s, an all-boy’s high school on East 6th Street, annual Veteran’s Day celebration.  Mr.Toledo, joined by several other Code Talkers, visited the school earlier that day and shared their remarkable story with the students. The next day, November 11th, the Code Talkers marched in the city’s annual Veteran’s Day parade.

The 87-year-old Toledo, wearing a red garrison military cap with yellow braids and adorned with USMC insignias, wore a turquoise, black onyx necktie pendant. He stood straight, with shoulders back as he greeted well-wishers with a firm hand shake. Personable, sharp-minded and energetic Mr. Toledo looked younger than his years. 

“Early in the war the Japanese broke every code we had,” Toledo said. “This gave them a huge advantage.”

Most codes dated back to the Civil War. Armed with many fluent English speakers the Japanese cracked all codes and even used the information gathered against the Allies. The U.S. military devised intricate codes, which often took an hour or more to decipher a simple message.

Philip Johnston, a son of a Protestant Missionary, grew up on a Navajo reservation. He played with Navajo children and spoke the language fluently.

Later Johnston became an engineer for the city of Los Angeles. When he read a story about the military working with Native Americans to develop a new code he went to Camp Elliot, near San Diego to suggest the Navajo language. His selling points: it is an unwritten language, extremely complex with no alphabet, no symbols and is spoken only among the Navajo in the Southwest. Less than 30 non-Navajos spoke the language.

The Navajo had no translation for words like radar, hand grenade, and tank. Johnston’s suggested using Navajo words. For example radar became - owl, potato - hand grenade, turtle - tank. The code contained 200 terms initially but grew to 600. Navajo code talkers translated code quickly and effectively. At Iwo Jima six coders worked around the clock receiving and sending over 800 messages without one mistake.

In early 1942 the Marine Corps created a special code unit and recruited 29 men from the Navajo reservation, reverently known as the “original 29.”
At 18, living on the Navajo reservation near Albuquerque, New Mexico and a member of the Ta’neezabnii Clan meaning the Tangled People, Toledo part of the second wave of code talkers, enlisted in October 1942 with his cousin Preston and his uncle Frank.

Toledo did boot camp at Camp Elliott and studied code at Camp Pendleton. He went to Guadalcanal with the Third Marine Division for jungle training and first saw action with the invasion of Bougainville, Philippines in November 1943.

 “Our mission was highly confidential. Except for the officers no one knew why we were there,” Toledo said.

On Bougainville a fellow Marine mistook Toledo for a Japanese soldier. “He poked me with his rifle. He marched me back to our commander in camp,” Toledo said. “He told him he captured a prisoner. The commander was real mad and assigned me a bodyguard although I did not find out that was his job until after the war.”

Toledo took part in the battles on Guam and Iwo Jima where over 1700 and 6000 Americans died respectively. He almost became a statistic. One night on Guam, after an attack destroyed his company’s communications system, Toledo ran messages from headquarters to the front line. “A sniper took shots at me,” Toledo said. “Snipers picked off several Marines that day.”

Another time Toledo found himself in the middle of a minefield. Aided by other soldiers he retraced his steps and escaped unharmed.
Toledo and his 3rd Marine Division landed on Iwo Jima, just eight square miles in size, two days after the first Marines landed. “We thought things would go okay. It took 36 days of tough fighting. The Japanese built tunnels connecting the entire island,” Toledo said.

A machine gun fortification atop a hill, killed many Marines unable to take cover in the barren landscape destroyed by earlier bombing runs. Given a message by his commander Toledo quickly translated the message. Minutes later a marine artillery unit wiped it out.
“This was the last hill before we reached the end of the island,” he said.

On Iwo Jima a commander tapped Frank and five other servicemen to raise the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi. Summoned for coding, Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, replaced Frank, in what became the war's most memorable photo.

With their still mission highly classified, the code talkers returned home from the war prohibited from speaking about their heroics. “I told my family and friends nothing about my work,” Toledo said.

In 1968 the government declassified the operation. In 2000, the original 29 received Congressional Gold Medals. The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2007 awarded medals to all code talkers.
Bill Toledo and the code talkers travel the country telling their story. The Navajo Code Talker Foundation is building a museum to preserve and document the Code Talker’s huge war contributions.

“We volunteered and we wanted to help our country. Our efforts put the Navajo on the map of our country’s history,” Toledo said. “Of the 420 code talkers who served less than 50 are still alive. The museum will keep their memory alive for future generations.”

To learn more about the Navajo Code Talkers or to help with the building of the Navajo Code Talkers Museum and Veteran Center see info below:
The Navajo Code Talkers Foundation, Inc. P.O. Box 1266, Window Rock, AZ 86515; email:  

Photo of Bill Toledo by Rudi Papiri