Frank Willetto was a Navajo Code Talker with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. He was born near Crownpoint, NM on the Navajo Reservation and died there on his ranch 87 years later. He was Bit'ahnii (Folded Arms Clan), born for Todich'ii'nii (Bitter Water Clan). His maternal grandfather was Taneezahnii (Tangle Clan) and his paternal grandfather was Naakaii Dine'e (Mexican People Clan). Frank was educated in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools.
As a teenager eager to defend his country during WWII, Frank enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1944. While waiting for his physical exam in Santa Fe, Frank was pulled out of line by a Marine sergeant and selected for a special mission. At the time, he did not know he was destined to become a Code Talker. After basic training and extensive radio training, PFC Willetto shipped out to the Pacific Theatre where he participated in battles on Saipan and Okinawa. Unknown to Frank, battleship NEW MEXICO was part of the task force providing shore bombardment of enemy strongholds so that our Marines could land.
The Navajo Code Talkers saved countless lives by speeding the end of the war. Their mission was to use their native language to transmit vital combat information over radio. The enemy never cracked the code, in fact, it was kept secret for decades. PFC Willetto felt he was protected by the Great Spirit when some Code Talkers, mistaken for Japanese, were captured by fellow Marines. He earned two combat stars and other service medals.
After the war, Frank Willetto returned to his native New Mexico. He worked in the mining industry for a few years before settling into a long career with the BIA, three years in the Road Department followed by 29 years in the Education Department at the BIA school in Pueblo Pintado. He was a guidance councilor at the school when he retired. His first wife died in 1989. They had been married nearly 43 years.
For his exemplary service as a Navajo Code Talker, Frank received the Congressional Silver Medal in 2002, long after his service to our country and long after the Defense Department acknowledged the Code Talkers' role in the war.
Frank served as Vice President of the Navajo Code Talker Association, Chairman of the National Indian Council on Aging, Navajo Tribal Councilman (for 12 years), Judge on the Navajo Supreme Judicial Council, and Vice President of the Navajo Nation. He testified on behalf of the Navajo people before congressional committees in Washington. Each day he traveled 45 miles to Pueblo Pintado where he served as Chapter President. For most of his life, he had been involved in community service, and remained a strong advocate for housing and health care for veterans and improving the quality of life for the Navajo people.
On April 12, 2008, Frank delivered a blessing of the pressure hull of submarine NEW MEXICO, first in Navajo, then in English, during the keel authentication ceremony at the Newport News, VA shipyard. He prayed for the safety of our undersea warriors, the sailors who would take this "Iron Fish" or Besh-Lo (the Navajo code word for submarine) to sea.
For his close association with NEW MEXICO, and for his role in the construction milestone ceremony, Frank became an honorary plank owner. He was presented a plank owner plaque, identical to what each crew member received at commissioning, containing a souvenir piece of steel left over from construction of the submarine.
"I'm glad I was able to take part in the blessing," Frank said. "I got to meet the crew and the commander, who used to live in New Mexico." He was referring to Rob Dain, who was born in Shiprock and raised in Tijeras. Frank said the plaque would eventually go to the Navajo Code Talkers Museum and Veterans Center planned for Tse Bonito, NM. In the meantime, he promised to keep it safely tucked away.
On June 23rd, Frank passed away at home, just weeks after turning 87. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, ordering the Navajo Nation flag to be flown at half-mast, stated "I am saddened that we lost Frank Chee Willetto. He served his country and returned home and served his people in many ways. . . The Navajo Nation's prayers and condolences are with the family of Mr. Willetto." He is survived by his second wife, Shirley, 10 children and 65 grandchildren. On June 29th, there was a memorial service for Frank at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. There, before a crowd of 200, Governor Susana Martinez read a proclamation that set that day aside as Frank Chee Willetto Day. The Governor then presented the proclamation and a New Mexico state flag to Shirley.
Just recently, Frank's daughter, Marcella, wrote about her dad: "Ya'a'teeh . . . I miss him dearly but I think about the fun times he is having with his first love, my mom." Marcella added that she hoped one of Frank's grandsons would cherish his USS NEW MEXICO cap just as he cherished the time he had with our submarine crew. Frank was a great warrior and American hero and spent his life making life better for the Navajo people. We are so very lucky to have known PFC Frank Chee Willetto, Code Talker, U.S. Marine Corps.