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A Code of Honor

World War II veteran Bill Toledo (center) shared his story as a "Code Talker" with delegates to the NEA 2011 Annual Meeting. Pictured (left to right) are:NEA American Indian Caucus Chairs Theresa Tommane, Debbie Hogue-Downing, JoAnn Harvey, and Gary Kirkland with Navajo Code Talker Bill Toledo.

World War II Hero Shares Historic Legacy With RA Delegates

July 1, 2011
Amy Buffenbarger

When Bill Toledo was at a government boarding school 75 miles from his home in the 1930s, he was punished for speaking his native Navajo language. In 1943 he became a hero for speaking Navajo.

Toledo was a Navajo Code Talker in Word War II.

He is currently in Chicago as a guest of the NEA American Indian/Alaska Native Caucus at the NEA’s Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly.

Toledo grew up raising sheep in Laguna, New Mexico, where horses were the only form of transportation.  When it was time to start elementary school, he was sent to a federal boarding school where he was not allowed to write or speak Navajo. The federal government began sending American Indians to off-reservation boarding schools in the 1870s. The schools were a subject of controversy and reports of abuse were widespread.

Toledo was 17 years old on December 7, 1941 when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor. “We didn’t know what Pearl Harbor was,” said Toledo. “But we soon found out.”

The United States Marines Corps also discovered that the Japanese had cracked their military code.

Phillip Johnston was living in California when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was the son of a Navajo missionary and spent his childhood playing with Navajo children where he picked up the language.  Upon hearing that the Marine Corps was looking to develop a new code, he recalled his days on the battlefields during World War I where Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma sent messages to each other using their native tongue.

Johnston went to Camp Elliott in San Diego, California and suggested the Marine Corps used the Navajo language to develop new code. According to Toledo, Johnston knew that “If Navajo was used as a code, nobody, not even the best code breaker, would crack it.”

Twenty-nine Navajo were recruited by the Marines to develop a new code. The “first 29” developed 211 words, many of which use the Navajo words for various animals to describe war ships, plans and weapons, but also letters of the alphabet. For example, for the letter “A” the Navajo used their word for “ant.” For letter B, their word for “bear.” Battleship was “whale.”

The First 29 graduated code school in July of 1942. Half were assigned to the 1st Marine division; the others continued to train additional Navajo in use of the code.

Toledo joined the Marines in October of 1942 after a Marine visited his school.  He became one of 400 Navajo Code Talkers.

He was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division and first experienced combat at the Battle of Bougainville in late September 1943.  The 3rd Marine Division went on to be one of the landing forces for the Battle of Iwo Jima, considered the most strategic location in the South Pacific. The Navajo Code Talkers used their creativity, intelligence and unique language to secure the battlefields.

A National Navajo Code Talkers Museum and Veterans Center to honor the loyalty and sacrifice of the Code Talkers is going to be built on a 208-acre site on land sacred to the Navajo in New Mexico. They are currently raising funds and aim to begin construction by 2012.

“The Navajo Code Talkers want to leave their legacy behind,” said Wynette Arviso of the Navajo Code Talkers Foundation. “They want to teach people about what they did and inspire future generations.”

You can visit Bill Toledo and learn more about the National Navajo Code Talkers Museum and Veterans Center at booth #444 in the Expo.


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