LISTEN to Navajo Code Talker Bill Toledo on Hometown Heroes
Navajo Code Talker Bill Toledo of Laguna, NM shares his story on episode #319 of Hometown Heroes, debuting on June 14, 2014. Toledo grew up in northwestern New Mexico, tending to sheep on the eastern end of the Navajo Nation. You’ll hear him remember being punished for speaking his native tongue while going to boarding school, but it was that very language that would allow Bill and 400 other young Navajo men to save the lives of countless Marines in the Pacific.
Bill remembers a sharply dressed Navajo Marine visiting his boarding school, and wanting to be just like him. He joined the Marines, endured some grueling training, and also code school, where the Marines of Navajo descent had to memorize a code crafted from their native tongue. You’ll hear Bill recall his journey overseas, as well as some of the hazards he had to survive in battles at Bougainville, Guam, and Iwo Jima. He once had an enemy bullet put a hole in his jacket, was once rounded up and threatened by American soldiers who thought he was Japanese, and experienced an even more alarming realization years after World War II. He found out that a “bodyguard” had been assigned to him for the sake of protecting the Navajo code, with instructions to kill Bill if that was necessary to safeguard the code. This arrangement for keeping the code “unbreakable” was a central element of the plot of the 2002 film Windtalkers, which brought newfound attention to the story of the Navajo Code Talkers. In this program, we also explore the fascinating origins of the code talker program, the brainchild of Philip Johnston, who grew up around the Navajo Nation as the son of English-speaking missionaries.
At left is a portion of the National Security Agency entry on Johnston’s role in developing the code. CLICK HERE to read the entire narrative. At the end of the program with Bill Toledo, you’ll hear him sing the Marine Corps Hymn in Navajo, as it was translated by Jimmy King. Those lyrics were included with the entire World War II Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary when it was declassified in 1968. In December 2000, the 29 original Code Talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush. The last surviving original Code Talker, Chester Nez, passed away in June, 2014. Bil Toledo and the other Code Talkers who followed that initial group, all received the Silver Medal.
I caught up to Bill while he was manning a book table in Old Town Albuquerque, NM, at the behest of the Navajo Code Talkers’ Foundation, which features Code Talker interviews and other information on its website, navajocodetalkers.org. If you see Bill in Old Town Albuquerque, or anywhere else, please thank him for serving our country. If you want to try to say “Thank you” in his native tongue, try saying Ahéhee’ .