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Navajo Code Talkers: A Guide to First-Person Narratives in the Veterans History Project

Biography of Navajo Code Talker Bill Toledo, together with a video recording of his oral history interview from the Veterans History Project archives.

Bill H. Toledo

Bill Toledo during his oral history interview in 2003

Unit: 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division
Dates of Service: October 1942 - October 1945
Battles / Campaigns: Bougainville; Guam; Iwo Jima

"But the bunch I was with, we worked together - we were always working together, helping each other." (Video interview, 55:21)

Bill H. Toledo hailed from Torreon, New Mexico, and was raised by his grandparents after losing both parents to tragic accidents while he was still an infant. He remembers his grandparents as being strict but loving, teaching him traditional Navajo ways and the value of hard work. Starting around the age of eight, he attended boarding school in nearby Crownpoint, where he remembers an environment of abuse and intolerance overseen by sadistic staff members. Toledo daydreamed about traveling as a young boy - he remembers that while he was out herding the family sheep he would wonder about what life was like outside the Navajos’ four sacred mountains (Video interview, 1:26:55). When he turned 18, Toledo got the opportunity to travel -- albeit under circumstances he could probably have never imagined. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in October 1942 together with his uncle Frank Toledo and cousin Preston Toledo, and all three of them would become Code Talkers.

After training as a Code Talker, Bill Toledo was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment in the 3rd Marine Division, where he would work closely with John Kinsel, who was assigned to 9th Marines’ headquarters. Toledo’s first experience of combat came on November 1, 1943 when his battalion took part in the invasion of Bougainville, and it was not a gentle introduction. His landing craft had a difficult time getting to the beach, and once on the beach they were strafed by Japanese aircraft. Their first night on the island, Toledo and his colleagues had to listen on helplessly while a captured Marine was tortured just behind Japanese lines. Toledo and the other Code Talkers with 9th Marines were able to demonstrate the value of the Navajo Code on Bougainville, as their commanders came to rely on them to deliver encrypted messages quickly after the older shackle code method proved to be slow and unreliable. Toledo was also assigned a bodyguard during the Battle of Bougainville, after a Marine mistook him for a Japanese soldier -- who often wore captured American uniforms -- and nearly killed him (Video interview, 11:25). 

Toledo survived another difficult landing on Guam, where he also endured a nighttime banzai attack, survived walking into a minefield, and was targeted by a Japanese sniper while delivering a message on foot. He remembers that his battalion commander was wounded on Guam, and that the battalion generally had a "hard time" there, but he and the other Code Talkers were again able to demonstrate the value of the Navajo Code. The Marines sent requests for artillery support and air support using the Navajo Code throughout the battle (Video interview, 21:00). After Guam came the invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945, and Toledo remembers horrific combat there, but also remembers getting to see his uncle Frank Toledo, who was assigned to the 28th Marines of the 5th Marine Division. After Iwo Jima the 3rd Marine Division reassembled on Guam to prepare for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Bill Toledo, however, was informed that he had accrued enough points to go home to the United States, and he was so excited that he finished packing for his trip home a week early. Throughout his time in the Marines, Toledo remembers that he got along well with the Marines he worked with closely, but did encounter bigotry from Marines outside his section. On Iwo Jima, he came to the aid of a wounded Marine who had previously made racist statements to him about Native Americans. (Video interview, 54:25)

After the war, Bill Toledo took advantage of the GI Bill to finish his high school diploma at the Albuquerque Indian School, as well as vocational training in mechanics at the Haskell Institute in Kansas. He worked in the uranium mining industry until retiring in 1985. Toledo struggled with post-traumatic stress symptoms for many years, until his family arranged to host an Enemy Way healing ceremony for him in 1970, a ceremony that lasted for three days. Afterwards, Toledo reported that he no longer had nightmares or experienced post-traumatic stress symptoms (Video interview, 1:14:15). He also found that he greatly enjoyed talking to students and other people about his experiences as a Code Talker, and became active in the Navajo Code Talkers Association after retiring.

Bill Toledo passed away in May 2016 at the age of 92.

Oral History Interview

Interview Excerpts

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Further Reading

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.