National Native American Heritage Month: Joseph R. Toahty, U.S. Coast Guard

Joseph Robert Toahty, who was half Pawnee and half Kiowa, established notable  records for Native Americans during his service in the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Toahty was born in Oklahoma in 1919. He inherited the name Le-Tuts-Taka (meaning “White Eagle”) from his Pawnee ancestor Chief White Eagle, who had served as a U.S. Army scout both during and after the Civil War.

After graduating from the Haskell Institute for Native Americans in Lawrence, Kansas, Joseph R. Toahty worked as a carpenter at the Army base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He also served in the Kansas National Guard. In June 1941 – six months before the U.S. entry in World War II – Toahty enlisted in the USCG. A few months after the outbreak of war, he was deployed to the southwest Pacific and in the process became the first person of Pawnee descent to go to sea. Toahty had six brothers who likewise served in the U.S. military.  He later noted, “At one time, my mother had a son in every branch of the service.”

A letter that Toahty wrote from the Pacific Theater to friends in Oklahoma was published in the Pawnee Courier-Dispatch newspaper in the fall of 1942. “I’m O.K. and still kicking salt water (Thank Heavens),” wrote Toahty. “Tell all the folks that I’m O.K. and tell them hello for me also.” He added, “I just wish I could tell you all of the foreign lands and ports I’ve been to and seen, which are plenty, but censorship forbids.”

Toahty’s wartime activities included taking part in the Battle of Guadalcanal between August 1942 and February 1943. This military campaign, which took place on and near the island of Guadalcanal, was the first major land offensive by Allied forces in their fight against the Empire of Japan. As a USCG machinist mate, Toahty helped operate vessels transporting troops and supplies onto the beaches of Guadalcanal. Toahty’s role in this historic battle made him the first Native American to both serve in a major U.S. naval offensive operation and set foot onto enemy territory during World War II.

Toahty nearly lost his life on several occasions as a result of the Battle of Guadalcanal. At one point, a Japanese shell exploded in a foxhole where he had sought shelter. The explosion blasted Toahty out of the foxhole and killed six of the seven men who were in there with them. After being treated at a field hospital, he was able to quickly return to active duty.

As with many other servicemen taking part if the Battle of Guadalcanal, however, Toahty contracted malaria. His case of malaria was especially severe, resulting in multiple recurrences and hospitalizations. It was because of these ongoing health challenges that Toahty was transferred back to the United States after 16 months in the Pacific Theater. He subsequently served in several USCG units stateside. As a widely acknowledged war hero who was awarded an Asiatic-Pacific campaign ribbon with four stars for valor in the face of danger, Toahty traveled extensively across the U.S. to participate in war bond promotion tours. He completed what the Pawnee Chief newspaper called his “long and faithful service” in the USCG in 1945.

Nearly four decades later, Toahty was finally awarded the Purple Heart that he had earned because of his injuries from that explosion in the foxhole on Guadalcanal. “I consider myself proud to be an American and nothing else can stand in the way of that,” said Toahty at the time he was given that long overdue military decoration. Toahty died in Oklahoma City in 1997 at the age of 77.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

For more information on Joseph R. Toahty, please check out

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