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Samuel Billison, 78; Navajo Code Talker Became an Educator, Speaker

Times Staff Writer

He was born on the floor of a humble hogan, destined to be a sheepherder.

Instead, he became a respected educator and -- because he had been a member of it -- an expert on arguably the most elite and secretive corps in World War II.

He was a Navajo “code talker.”

Samuel Billison died of heart disease Nov. 17 in Window Rock, Ariz. He was believed to be 78.

As a young Navajo on a reservation, Billison dreamed of joining the Marines. With World War II already in progress, he enlisted the day he graduated from high school in 1943.

The decision changed his life. At war’s end, GI Bill in hand, he never returned to sheepherding.

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Billison earned a doctorate in education and studied law at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and went on to be a teacher, principal and administrator who helped reorganize the reservation education system under the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

He served on the Navajo Nation Council and, in 1971 -- three years after their highly secretive work was finally declassified -- helped organize the Navajo Codetalkers Assn., serving for years as president.

The former teacher, in demand as a speaker for Native American heritage programs, mesmerized audiences with tales of the code talkers. It was dramatic stuff.

In 1942, Billison explained, Japanese cryptographers were breaking U.S. military codes seemingly at will. To combat the problem, Philip Johnston suggested a novel solution. A World War I veteran and engineer, Johnston, as the son of missionaries, had grown up on a Navajo reservation and knew the language, a subtly inflected tongue.

He suggested devising a code from the unwritten language, which was hardly spoken outside the Navajo Nation. Camp Pendleton became the testing site and later training ground.

The Marines initially recruited 29 Navajos ages 16 to 18 and told them to come up with a code incomprehensible even to other Navajos outside the program.

They gave aircraft the names of birds, naval vessels the names of fish, and land vehicles that of animals. A dive bomber was the Navajo word for “hummingbird,” a destroyer was a “shark,” a tank a “turtle,” a torpedo a “potato” and an amphibious vehicle a “frog.”

For the multitude of words without Navajo equivalents, including place names such as Guadalcanal, the group spelled them out using a Navajo word for each letter -- ant for A. To keep the Japanese, who never broke the code, from deciphering anything from repeated sounds, each letter of the alphabet was represented by an accepted set of three alternating Navajo words. So A might be expressed as ant, ax or apple.

Military officials worried initially that the intricate Navajo code was too unwieldy and time-consuming -- until an experiment at Camp Pendleton showed that older U.S. codes required two hours to encrypt, transmit and decipher while the Navajo code took only 2 1/2 minutes.

More Navajos, including Billison, and a handful of Comanches and other Native Americans, were recruited. The ones who survived rigorous testing had to memorize the difficult code without written notes.

One problem, Billison would explain to audiences, was that in his complex language, a single word could have 20 meanings depending on how it is spoken.

“If you say it wrong,” he said, “you might be cussing your father-in-law.”

The 421 code talkers trained during the war were assigned to frontline duty, using field radios and telephones to transmit orders during combat. Billison was sent to Iwo Jima.

He was one of six code talkers who transmitted more than 800 error-free coded messages in a key 48 hours of the fierce 36-day battle for the island and its badly needed airstrips. Two code talkers, along with 6,819 other Marines, died.

“Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” said Maj. Howard Connor, then signal officer of Billison’s 5th Marine Division.

The never-broken Navajo code which, Billison liked to remind people, was devised “by a bunch of 16-year-old kids who were sheepherders,” was the principal communication used during the battle, in which 20,000 Japanese also died.

As the story of the code talkers emerged decades after the war in documentaries, books, articles and speeches by Billison and others, Hollywood became interested in developing a feature motion picture.

He became a consultant on John Woo’s 2002 movie “Windtalkers” starring Nicolas Cage. He also was the authentic voice of Hasbro’s GI Joe Codetalker doll.

Though Billison hoped a Navajo would be the movie’s central character, Cage had the major role as a battle-fatigued Anglo bodyguard for Adam Beach as the Navajo code talker. Later, Billison pronounced the film “a great war picture.”

During the war, each code talker was accompanied by such a bodyguard to protect him from capture and with the grim assignment -- never carried out -- to protect the code at all costs, even if it meant killing the Navajo should the Japanese capture him.

In 2002, Congress presented each of the five survivors of the original 29 code-makers with a gold Medal of Honor, and later gave Billison and other surviving code talkers silver medals. Fewer than 100 code talkers now survive.

Billison married and had five sons and six grandchildren.


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