War of Words

Navajo code talker Sam Billison honored by

Rotary Club of Lamorinda Sunrise

By Joshua Kors


Sam Billison began life as a sheepherder. Then something remarkable happened.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, December, 7, 1941, sucking America - and Billison - into World War II.  The U.S. government wanted him to join the Marines, ship out to the Pacific and play a key role in the battle for Iwo Jima.

Why Billison? The 79-year-old veteran told a crowd gathered at Acalanes High School Wednesday night that he is a Navajo, a native of the Window Rock reservation in Arizona, and that 60 years ago the Marines devised a code based on the complicated, little-known language of the Navajo nation. They asked Billison and 420 other young Navajos to develop that code and become "code talkers," pushing secure military transmissions past baffled Japanese ears.

"We were all sheepherders before the war, scraping sheep skin for mattresses, Navajo rugs," said Billison, with the deadpan delivery of a man who could hardly believe his own life story. "Who would have thought that a bunch of sheepherders could come up with a code nobody could break?"


                            June 23, 2004


Sam Billison, president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, speaks about using his native tongue to help the Allies during World War II.





But 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.

Rotary 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.

Billison's 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.

The 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.

The 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 whale ("lo-tao").

Though the old code was failing, Billison spoke of how hesitant his commanders were to embrace the new code.

"They 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.'"


Before 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.

Despite 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.

The original 29 code talkers were presented gold medals; Billison and the 391 Marines who followed them received silvers.

"They 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."

Even 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.

"After the movie, they wanted code talkers everywhere," said Billison. "Finally we got an agent out of New York City."

Billison 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.

Billison 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.


The 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.

Today 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.

What 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."



If 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) 986-5900.


Tel.: (646) 456-7738                                                   joshua@joshuakors.com