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Navajo Code Talker Bill Toledo

A significant glimpse into World War II and Native American history can be experienced as Navajo Code Talker Bill Toledo will be in attendance to share his story during the Fifth Annual Louise Young Diversity Lecture on Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Ataloa Theatre of the Hallie Brown Ford Fine Arts on the East Central University campus.

The lecture is free and open to the public.

During the early months of World War II, Japanese intelligence experts broke every code the United States forces devised. They were able to anticipate American actions at an alarming rate due to having plenty of fluent English speakers at their disposal.

The Japanese sabotaged messages and issued false commands which led to the ambush of Allied troops. As a result, complex codes were utilized, but sending and receiving these codes took hours of encryption and decryption.

Enter Phillip Johnston, a civilian living in California. Johnston, a son of a Protestant missionary, had the answer. He grew up on the Navajo reservation and was one of less than 30 outsiders fluent in their difficult language. Johnston realized that since it had no alphabet and was almost impossible to master without early exposure, the Navajo language had great potential to be an indecipherable code.

Johnston launched a Navajo Code Talker test program in early 1942 when the first 29 code talkers were recruited by Johnston.

The ingenious and effective code was created at Camp Pendleton. The codes originated as approximately 200 terms, growing to over 600 by war’s end. It could communicate in 20 seconds what took coding machines of the time 30 minutes to do. It consisted of native terms that were associated with the respective military terms they resembled such as the word ‘turtle’ meant ‘tank’ and a ‘dive-bomber’ was a chicken hawk.

Once trained these 29 Navajo Code talkers were sent to Marine divisions in the Pacific theater of World War II and quickly gained a reputation for their remarkable abilities. In the field, they were not allowed to write any part of the code down as a reference. They became living codes and, under heavy battle conditions, had to rapidly recall every word with precisions or risk hundreds or thousands of lives. In the battle of Iwo Jima, in the first 48 hours alone, they coded over 800 transmissions with accuracy. Their heroism was a critical part of victory in that pivotal conflict.

Mr. Toledo was a Navajo Code Talker for three years from 1942-45 and served in engagements, including the Battle of Bougainville in the British Solomon Islands and the battles for Guam and Iwo Jima.

While on the island of Guam, while filling in as a messenger, Toledo narrowly escaped sniper fire thanks to some quick footwork. His moves impressed some of his fellow Marines that they jokingly asked how his football career was like before the war.

On one occasion, while marching through the jungle, Toledo was mistaken for a Japanese soldier by fellow Marines and taken prisoner. After being taken back to headquarters at gunpoint, he was assigned a bodyguard to avoid future misunderstandings. To this day, he still gets calls to make sure he’s okay.

Dr. Louise Young is a graduate of Ada Public Schools and East Central University (B.A. in geography in 1969). She earned a master’s and doctorate from the University of Colorado. From 1971 to 1974, she was an instructor of geography at ECU. In 2008, Young established an endowed lectureship within the ECU Foundation with a goal to present an annual free lecture for students, faculty and community members on various aspects of diversity.

She retired as senior software engineer with Raytheon Company, where she worked for 34 years. In addition to her software engineering career, she has received numerous awards for her work in diversity, both inside and outside of corporate America, especially with regards to equal treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. In 2003, she received the prestigious Raytheon Diversity Heroes Award from Raytheon CEO, Bill Swanson.

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