Another Code Talker Is Gone!
Born on the floor of a hogan on the Navajo Reservation sometime in the mid-1920s, Billison never had a birth certificate and was estimated to be about 78 years of age. He joined the U.S. Marines in 1943 and became a member of the famed Navajo Code Talkers who combined their Navajo language with a code to overwhelm the Japanese code breakers during World War ll.
The originator of the Code was Tech Sgt. Philip Johnston. Son of a missionary father, Johnston had grown up on the Navajo reservation and was fluent in the Navajo language. In February, 1942 he began the creation of a secret vocabulary, a code within the Navajo language, that renamed military armaments, equipment and troop movements using rough equivalents in Navajo – terms for communications, military officers, airplanes, ships, months and general vocabulary. Many words were taken from nature, for instance: Observation plane – owl; bomber - buzzard; fighter plane - hummingbird. January was crested snow; amphibious craft - frog; battleship - whale; and route - rabbit trail.
Billison told an Associated Press interviewer in 2001 he joined the U.S. Marines right out of high school and was sent to test as a code talker after he finished boot camp when the Marines discovered he was fluent in English and Navajo.
He said, “The code was very difficult to learn and a lot of the young Navajos didn’t pass the tests. ”Learning the alphabet equivalents, learning to spell out the terms and names of places, plus memorizing the entire vocabulary of 411 terms with a response that had to be lightning fast in a combat situation was not an easy task.
“When we were discharged the Marines told us, ‘If anyone asks you what you did with the Marines, just say you fought. Don’t say anything about radio, about code or communication’.” It was the Marine’s secret weapon in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.
The code, a system of communications never cracked by the Japanese, completely confused the enemy concerning U.S. troop movements to the point where it brought about the end of the war in August, 1945 when the Japanese surrendered.
I’ve been told the code was so effective that other Navajos who were non-Marines in the Pacific Theatre could not understand what the Navajo Marines were doing or what they were talking about.
The contribution of the code talkers had been so invaluable that the Marine Corps wanted to keep the code as a permanent adjunct. The Department of Defense did not release information on the code talkers until 1968 when the Code was declassified. By then, WWll was a distant memory and America was engulfed in another war in South East Asia.
Lawrence Morgan, speaker of the Navajo Nation Council said Billison traveled throughout the world to carry the story of the Code Talkers who “offered their language to allow citizens of the United States the freedom we are able to enjoy today.”
Billison, who earned a doctorate degree from the University of New Mexico - Albuquerque, served on the Navajo Nation Council and the Navajo Area School Board Association, helped to reorganize the education system under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was a member of the former Kinlichee School Board and had been Kinlichee chapter president.
The creation of the Code and the Code Talkers are the basis of one of the most riveting stories to come out of World War ll. Is it any wonder I grouse at the thought of John Woo’s cinematic bomb – “The Windtalkers” where the plot centers on the angst of a white Marine, bodyguard for a Code Talker? What a waste of Native talent and Hollywood money.
This article was edited from an Associated Press Obit and the book, “The Navajo Code Talkers” by Doris Paul.
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