Code Talker Tells of
AZTEC — Navajo Code Talker Wilfred Billey probably didn’t know the day he became a radio man during World War II that he would some day be considered an American hero.
Billey told an overflowing crowd at the San Juan Archaeological Society that it took the death of his good friend to earn his first job as a radio man during the United States’ battles against the Japanese.
Billey spent more than 30 months in combat during his four years of military service during the war; but it was during a fight in Saipan with the 2nd Marine Division Billey remembers clearly. A good friend of his, Levi, a Native American from California, got shot during an island invasion.
“That’s where I became a radio man,” Billey said. “He got shot right through the radio. He died that evening.”
That’s when his radio chief offered him Levi’s job as the radio man.
Billey gave the appreciative audience a quick lesson on the military and how Navajo boys were recruited throughout the Navajo Nation.
The first 29 who were recruited developed a code based on the Navajo language that was never broken by the Japanese and was credited with allowing the Americans to communicate and save American lives.
Billey was in a group of 58 Navajos who came along later and were taught the code, and among about 400 Navajos who served in World War II as Code Talkers, although they were officially called radio men. He remembers his first action for the weather and the death he witnessed.
He said that when they stepped off the boat on Nov. 20, 1943, it was 120 degrees; but it was the bodies he later saw during his first beach landing that is burned in his memory.
The Americans suffered 3,000 casualties during the 76 hours it took to take the small island defended by 2,700 Japanese soldiers. When the fighting was over, only 17 Japanese were left to surrender.
“I never saw so many people dead,” Billey said. “You can see how dedicated they were to the emperor.”
After the war, Billey took advantage of the GI Bill to get a college education and went on to become a teacher, counselor and principal, including 15 years at Shiprock High School.
“That’s where I got my white hair,” Billey said.
Of the original 29 Code Talkers, only five were still alive when they were honored for their service to their country. Of Billey’s group of 58, he said about 40 are gone. During the war, 13 Code Talkers were killed in action, including four or five at Iwo Jima, he said.
“With much pride and satisfaction, in the prime of my life, I served my country with the United States Marine Corps,” Billey said to a rousing ovation. “ The Navajo language really played a significant role in fighting the Japanese.”
Billey’s speech was part of the San Juan Archaeological Society’s guest speaker program. The group meets at 7 p.m. the fourth Thursday of each month from September through May at Aztec Ruins National Monument. The March meeting, however, will be March 18, and will include a tour of a newly restored great kiva led by archaeologist Gary Brown of Aztec Ruins. The group takes field trips in June, July and August.
Information: Miranda Kennedy, (505) 632-2761.
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