that is precisely what he and his fellow Navajo soldiers constructed.
Wednesday, three years after being awarded the Congressional Medal
of Honor for his efforts, Billison was greeted in Lafayette with
a standing ovation and given a certificate of achievement by the
Rotary Club of Lamorinda Sunrise.
program chairman John Fazel praised Billison for his ingenuity and
courage, noting the critical role he and the code talkers played
in defeating the Empire of Japan.
war efforts could not have come at a better time. Before the Navajos
got involved in World War II, U.S. efforts in the Pacific were in
serious trouble. The Marines had been transmitting messages using
a highly complex alphanumeric code. Even so, the Japanese had cracked
it. The Marines tried altering the code every day, to no avail.
Troop and artillery movements were exposed, resulting in the deaths
of thousands of soldiers.
Navajo code was different from the beginning, Billison explained.
Though many of the Japanese soldiers spoke flawless English, none
knew Navajo. And it would have been nearly impossible for them to
learn because the Navajo language is tonal, based on subtle inflections
that take years to master. Every Navajo word, said Billison, can
mean 20 different things depending on the rise and fall of the voice.
idea for the code came from Philip Johnston, a World War I veteran
who grew up on the Navajo reservation with his father, a Catholic
missionary. Johnston knew firsthand how difficult the Navajo language
was to master. In cooperation with the Marines and dozens of Navajo
soldiers, Johnston devised a top-secret code in which a fighter
plane was a hummingbird ("da-he-tih-hi") and a battleship was a
the old code was failing, Billison spoke of how hesitant his commanders
were to embrace the new code.
tried the original code, and to transmit a message, it took two
hours. So the officer said, 'Let's try the Indians,'" remembered
Billison, a warm smirk appearing below his red garrison cap. "It
took us two-and-a-half minutes. The general said, 'Gee, I don't
know about this. Let's try it again.' They tried it again. Same
thing happened. The general scratched his head. He said, 'Let's
keep them damn Indians.'"
long Billison was sent from the relative safety of the command ship
to the sands of Iwo Jima, where he spent 26 days on the blood-soaked
front lines. After he and fellow soldiers from the 5th Marine Division
wrested control of the island, Billison was moved to Japan's central
island, where he spent additional months helping secure the peace.
their service to the country, Billison and the other code talkers
received little recognition for their efforts until the file on
them was declassified in 1968. After that a wave of acknowledgement
began, starting with the popular history book "The Navajo Code Talkers"
by Doris A. Paul, peaking with the awarding of the Congressional
Medal of Honor in July 2001.
original 29 code talkers were presented gold medals; Billison and
the 391 Marines who followed them received silvers.
told 'em, this gold medal is worth $33,000. So don't lose it. Don't
hawk it. The silver," joked Billison, "it's the same inscription,
but you know, they didn't tell us how much they were worth."
broader recognition for Billison's efforts came after John Woo's
2002 film "Windtalkers," starring Adam Beach as a Navajo code talker
and Nicholas Cage as a white soldier assigned to protect him.
the movie, they wanted code talkers everywhere," said Billison.
"Finally we got an agent out of New York City."
actually assisted Woo in the film's research and development. Publicly
he praised the film for its warm portrait of Navajo Marines. Privately,
though, he noted a key error in the film's plot. In "Windtalkers,"
Cage's character distances himself from the code talker because
he is secretly told that if his Navajo is about to be captured,
he should kill him rather than let the code slip into enemy hands,
where it could be extracted through torture.
said the Marines always treated him with respect and that the whole
"kill-your-Indian" subplot was a ridiculous invention devised purely
for Hollywood drama.
drama and accomplishment in Billison's life didn't end after his
code talking days. After returning from the front lines of Iwo Jima,
Billison climbed the academic ladder, earning a Ph.D. from the University
of Arizona before applying his gentle charm as an elementary and
high school teacher. He married and had five boys, the youngest
now in college.
he travels the country speaking about his war experience, a tour
of duty that earns money for his tribe and raises funds for a scholarship
that benefits code talkers' children.
would he really like to be doing? Billison smiles, pauses, smiles
again. "I miss herding sheep," he said. He laughs. "Too bad my kids
aren't into it."
you'd like to have Dr. Sam Billison or a member of the Navajo
Code Talkers Association speak at function you are organizing,
call (928) 871-5468.
For more information about future
speakers at the Rotary Club of Lamorinda Sunrise, call (415)