even talk to his own
family about what he did in the war. The government didn't
declassify the World War II code until 1968.
And it wasn't
until a few years ago that the code talkers began to be
recognized by the rest of the country. Congress gave
them special medals, and the entertainment industry came
up with the 2002 John Woo film, "Windtalkers."
("Best war picture I've seen," Billison says.
"Gave the public a lot of knowledge about the code
Sitting in a
small conference room in Orinda, Billison was dressed in
a bright yellow shirt, with his campaign ribbons pinned
to his chest and the code talkers' association patch
sewn on his right shoulder.
ashore at Iwo Jima in February 1945 and was on the front
lines for 26 days straight. Like many combat veterans,
he is circumspect when describing those horrific days
and nights. Asked what it was like, he says, "It
wasn't a Sunday picnic."
He prefers to
talk about how the code talkers got started, and how it
took years -- decades even -- before the nation
shame," he said, because many of the code talkers
died off long before the government finally said it was
all right to talk about what they had done. Of the
original group of 421 Navajo code talkers, only about
100 are still alive.
never got to tell their parents," Billison said.
"In fact, my parents passed away before 1968. They
never knew what I did."
the "concept (of code talking) came from World War
I," when the United States used Choctaw and
Comanche soldiers to chat back and forth on military
Germans didn't understand Choctaw and Comanche,"
Billison said dryly.
United States entered World War II, Philip Johnston, son
of a missionary to the Navajos and one of the few
non-Navajos to speak their language, approached Marine
Maj. Gen. Clayton Vogel and convinced him that the
complex Navajo language was ideal for secret
communication. Navajo has no written language and,
instead, uses a phonetic alphabet.
recruiters brought a first group of 29 Navajos to
Southern California, put them through boot camp, then
told them about their new task.
officer told them, 'OK, boys, come up with a code,'
" Billison said. "He locked the door and left.
These young guys didn't even know what 'code' meant. But
they started talking."
they had the rudiments of a code. They broke it down
into three subject areas, Billison said, that would be
constantly used in wartime: "air -- anything that
flew would be named after birds; ground -- this would be
war machines; and sea -- names of fish for different
kinds of boats and ships."
having one word for the letter "a," they had
three. So, with phonetic spelling, it went like this:
Wol-La-Chee meant Ant; Be-La-Sana stood for Apple; and
Tse-Nill meant Axe. And so on, down to Z.
wanted to have more than one word for each letter of the
alphabet," Billison says, "because if you keep
saying Wol-La-Chee, the Japanese will find out what it
None of this
was committed to paper -- it all had to be memorized.
When the Marines invaded Iwo Jima, Billison says, he was
kept on the ship for the first couple of days, encoding
and decoding messages around the clock.
A few days
later, after he'd gone ashore and was in the thick of
battle, a second lieutenant was killed. Billison,
another Navajo code talker and a sergeant were called
"One of us
was going to replace that lieutenant," he said.
Finally, the officer in charge looked at the sergeant
and said, " 'Well, the code talkers have more
important business than being a lieutenant,' and the
sergeant got the job."
In a war that
saw many combat servicemen getting swift promotions and
even battlefield commissions, Billison said, the code
talkers were never promoted above the rank of private
first class, something that rankled long after the war
ago, when Billison was giving a speech at a code
talkers' reunion at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County,
he saw that the speaker following him was the commandant
of the Marine Corps.
At the end of
his speech, Billison remarked with a smile that,
"We were PFCs all through the war, and this morning
we saw a Marine Corps (marching) band and all those guys
are sergeants-major. These guys are tooting horns, and
we were out there shooting rifles. I just wonder what
the explanation is."
"So at the
end of his speech, the general looks over and says, 'As
of right now, I make you all sergeants-major.' Which, of
course, was kind of a joke because we were all
Billison said, "The next day, down at the base
exchange (store), there's several code talkers buying
that when he goes to speaking engagements around the
country, the most common question is: "The United
States did a lot of bad things to your tribe. Why did
you fight for your country?"
tell them, we still think of North America as our
Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.