WW II Navajo Code Talker visits area, talks to several local groups

Bill Toledo, (right) was a Navajo Code Talker, who served in the 3rd Marine Division during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. Frank Willetton, was a Navajo Indian who served as an infantryman with the 2nd Marine Division at Okinawa. Sun photo by Don Moore

Bill Toledo, a Navajo Code Talker with the 3rd Marine Division in World War II, was in the area talking to several organizations and school groups, along with Frank Willetton, another Navajo who fought with the 2nd Marine Division at Okinawa.

The Rotary Club of Englewood, Fla. brought them to town to speak at their 7 a.m. weekly meeting Thursday, March 25, 2010.  While here they also talked to the general public at a two hour session held at Lemon Bay High School in Englewood on Thursday evening. A full house of 1st Marine Division Assn. member listened to the two Marines at the association’s monthly meeting held at the Old World Restaurant in North Port at noon Wednesday.

Toledo was fresh off the reservation when he joined the Marines in October 1942 as an 18-year-old Leatherneck. Like a handful of other Navajos before he was sent to a special communications school at Camp Elliott, north of San Diego, Calif., where he learned to be a code talker.

“I ended up in the 3rd Marine Division and was sent to Guadalcanal for jungle training,” the 86-year-old private said. “A month later our division was sent into combat at Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Before that battle was over 1,243 Americans were killed and 18,500 Japanese lost their lives..

“The landing was tough because of rough seas. Many of our landing craft ended up on the beach. While we were trying to push them off the beach Japanese Zero fighters strafed us. Luckily, we had one of our carriers off shore and called for help. Within minutes our fighters arrived and shot down the Zeroes,” Toledo recalled.

“In July 21, 1944 our division landed on Guam. We secured the island in a month. Before that was accomplished we had to sweep the island of enemy troops that were hiding in the jungle and caves,” he said.

By then 1,747 Marines died on the island fighting and 18,040 Japanese were killed.  Fewer than 500 of the enemy’s troops surrendered to American forces.

“On Feb. 19, 1945 Marines went ashore on Iwo Jima. The 4th and 5th Marine Divisions hit the beach first and the 3rd Marine Division was held as a floating reserve off shore. Two days later we came ashore,” Toledo explained.

“We were told we might secure the tiny eight-square-mile island in a week. It took us 36 days of hard fighting,” he said. “The Japanese were hidden and tunnels and caves.

“Our whole division was moving to the north end of the island away from Mount Suribachi. The 5th Division was on our left and the 4th was on our right. The fighting was tough.

“There were three hills in front of us. The center hill was in our section. There was a concrete pillbox atop the hill that could fire its machine guns in four directions,” Toledo said. “There was no place for our Marines to hide because all the vegetation on the island had been uprooted and destroyed by shelling for days in advance of the invasion. As Marines approached the pillbox they were mowing ‘em down.

“My commander wrote a message and handed it to me: ‘Request fire on Hill 632-C.’ I translated it into Navajo and called it into a Marine artillery unit. Five minutes later here comes the barrage on the Japanese hill.

Two Navajo Code Talkers man a Marine radio during one of the epic island battles in the Pacific during WWII. Photo courtesy of navajocodetalkers.org

“After the artillery blasted the hill and smashed the pillbox Marines threw hand grenades and dynamite into what was left of the pillbox. Then they hit it with a flame thrower. This last hill in our section was captured before we reached the end of the island,” he said.

Toledo survived three major battles without a scratch.

“I was lucky,” he admitted.

Willetton was just as lucky.

He joined the 2nd Marine Division and ended up at Okinawa, the larges island battle in the Pacific during the Second World War.

The 84-year-old wasn’t a Code Talker. Willetton was a rifle toter on the front lines.

“What most people don’t know, there were to be two landings at Okinawa on Easter Sunday morning, April 1, 1945. The real one came in from the west side of the island and a fake one was supposed to attack the shoreline from the south side. I was in the southern invasion, the fake one,” he said.

“I was never on the island. The invasion never happened for us,” Willetton said. “We just wanted to make the Japanese think we were landing, but we turned around and headed back out to sea. We floated in ships off shore as reserve troops for two weeks, but were never used.

That was the end of his war. Willetton was fortunate he didn’t make it ashore.

The battle lasted 82 days and it was the bloodiest in the Pacific. There were 12, 513 Americans killed at Okinawa and 33,916 wounded. The Japanese losses total 110,000 killed and 7,500 captured. Tens of thousands of civilians were also killed in the invasion.

Toledo said he began telling the world about Navajo Code Talkers in 1985 when his sister asked him to talk to her third grade class about what he did in World War II.

“It was supposed to be a 15 minute talk, but when I showed up the whole school wanted to hear my story,” he said. “I ended up talking to them for the rest of the day about Code Talkers. That was in 1985.”

Bill Toledo served in the 2nd Marine Division in Iwo Jima as a Navajo Code Talker during WWII. Photo courtesy of navajocodetalkers.org

Since then he’s made scores of talks telling his story all around the country to school children, private organizations and military groups. He and three other Code Talkers were invited to the National Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, Va. in February for the 65 anniversary of the invasion of Iwo Jima.

“Out of the 420 Code Talkers there are less than 100 of us left,” he said. “And most of those still living are in poor health and not able to tour the country talking to people like I am.”

Toledo is much involved in helping to build the Navajo Code Talkers Museum and Veterans Center. The purpose of the project is to tell the story of the Code Talkers and the major part they played using their unbreakable language to send coded messages to Marine units fighting in the Pacific during World War II.

For more information about the museum visit: http://www.navajocodetalkers.org or call them at (928) 688-5202.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Friday, March 26, 2010 and is republished with permission.

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  1. My father was a First Lt. with the 1st Marine Div. embedded with the Code Talkers on Okinawa and thereafter spent time in China. I would like any information anyone would like to share, please, His name is Walter T. Ahearn (originally from Schenectady, MY) and he is in a nursing home close to our home. I spend hours with him daily. He cannot remember the name of the General he served under. He was on the USS Ernst but that’s as much information I can find from looking at his service papers. He talks about being by himself with two or three Navaho Code Talkers who kept mostly to themselves and occasionally share anecdotes about his time there. He tells me his work was secret and is reluctant to share more details. He took basic at Parris Island attended several special schools in Quantico and Harvard before his deployment. I’d appreciate any information. Thank you.

    Susan Ahearn Mitchell, ahearn_susan@hotmail.com

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