Navajo code talker recounts WWII experiences

    by James Myers

    Laramie, Wyoming (AP)

    Dr. Samuel Billison, a Navajo code talker during World War II, gave a presentation at the Cheyenne VA Hospital on Sept. 2.

    Billison served in the Marines from May of 1943 to March of 1946 on Iwo Jima. Billison’s speech was preceded by the presentation of flags by the Northern Arapaho Color Guard, Eastern Shoshone Color Guard and prayers from tribal spiritual leaders.

    The Eastern Shoshone Drum Group sang during the beginning and end of the talk.

    Billison greeted the room with a “Ya tae” and waited for a reaction. The crowd sheepishly responded with their own “Ya tae.”

    He repeated the greeting, only louder, to get a bigger reaction. After the third “Ya tae” the crowd responded affirmatively and Billison said, “You just broke the code.”

    Billison’s talk was quite humorous, poking fun at a number of things while emphasizing the importance of how his heritage helped win WWII.

    Navajo code is believed by many to have made a difference in the Pacific Theater in WWII. When the United States found that their code system was repeatedly broken by the Japanese, officials began searching for another way to communicate classified information.

    They recognized the potential for using the Navajo language as a code but not without a problem in developing the system. “We can speak (Navajo) but we can’t write it because we don’t have an alphabet,” Billison said.

    So the United States military had to find a way to make it effective. Because Comanche had been used to transmit code during WW I, the U.S. wanted to give Navajo a chance, Billison said.

    “These first 29 men... an officer put them in a room and said, ‘OK boys, come up with a code.’ The officer went out, locked the door and let Navajos sit in there,” Billison said smirking. “They didn’t even know what code meant.”

    Most of the original 29 men had lied about their age or were just old enough to join the Army, Billison said. They had spent most of their lives raising sheep.

    “All these first 29 were sheepherders. In those days, all the boys, their first job was raising sheep,” Billison said. “Who would think that a bunch of sheepherders could develop a code that nobody has ever broken.”

    Because the men didn’t know much about codes or warfare and there isn’t a set Navajo alphabet, trying to reproduce the sounds of the language with the English alphabet only complicated the process.

    Eventually a code was created. But, many who tried to be code talkers weren’t able to understand it. There were only 421 code talkers, Billison said, many of them had to take the test multiple times to pass if at all.

    “When we were learning the code. you don’t write it, you have no notes – it all goes in your head,” Billison said. “Once you go out that door you don’t talk about it.”

    When a message was sent, only four men ever knew what the message said, Billison said – the officer sending the message, the person receiving it, and the Navajos translating it.

    “Code was top secret,” he said. “From the beginning, through the war, and 20 years after the war, it was still top secret.”

    Billison was one of six code talkers on Iwo Jima. While stationed there, they transmitted over 800 messages without any mistakes.

    “Anything up in the air was named after birds,” he said.

    In Navajo the word gaena means chicken hawk, a bird that flies around and dive-bombs its prey. “Gaena would then translate to dive bomber.”

    Things on the ground meant tangible goods like weapons, Billison said. For instance, potatoes translated to hand grenades, turtles were tanks and eggs were bombs, he said.

    “If your wife hits (you) in the head with an egg, it bursts, right? Or if you hit your wife on the head... I’m not advising that though,” Billison said to a laughing crowd once again.

    Fish translated to boats and submarines – whales were battleships and it went on from there, Billison said.

    New words had to be designated as weapons and equipment as they changed, Billison said. One of the difficult parts too, he said, was that many things in the modern world didn’t already have words, names or were even understood by many of the Navajo.

    After WWII, Billison finished his degree in 1955 at the University of Oklahoma and went to the University of Arizona where he earned a doctorate in education.

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