Indian Education

Utah State Board of Education

DR. SAM BILLISON

Sam Billison died on November 18, 2004 leaving behind a legacy of courage, bravery and indisputable love for his country and mother earth.  He was born in a traditional Navajo Hogan at Ganado and his family thought his life would be as a sheepherder.

When he was old enough he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps to fight for his country during World War II.  His weapons were knowledge of his language and the ability to translate Navajo words into an unbreakable code that was used to defeat the Japanese forces in the Pacific.

Before Sam joined the Marines a man named Philip Johnston who had grown up on the Navajo reservation and knew the language suggested that a code could be used from the unwritten language. The Japanese were easily breaking the code that the navy was then using.  Sam became “one of six Navajo “code talkers” who transmitted 800 error free messages in a key 48 hours of the fierce 36 day battle for Iwo Jima” according to the L.A. Times newspaper.

The unique code used bird names for aircraft, and names of fish for naval vessels and names of animals for land vehicles.  Learning the code required intense training and memorization of the Navajo words.  Not only was the work intense but also dangerous because it required that the code talkers be in the thick of battle where the commanders of their units were.  They had codes within codes, for example, the United States was called “ our mother” the Australians were “rolled hat” and China was “Braided Hair”.

Sam (pictured here on the left) was quoted as saying “who would think that a bunch of sheep herders would create a code that no one in the world could break?”  While Sam and his fellow code talkers were honored in 1968, until then they were told they could not speak of it to anyone.  Their actions were declassified in 1968 and after that Sam and others began to speak about what they really did in helping to win battles in the Pacific arena.  Not only were the Navajo men code talkers, but other Indians such as Choctaw, Cheyenne and Lakota were used in the European arena speaking their languages.

Some of the first people to acknowledge their important work in the war were the Japanese.  The Japanese honored them by flying some of the Code Talkers and their companions to Japan.  They wanted to know more about the brave men and how they designed the unbreakable code.

After the war Sam went on to become a father and grandfather while earning his bachelors degree, a masters degree and a doctorate in education.  Dr. Billison was a teacher, principal and superintendent and also served his community as a representative on the Navajo Nation Council.  Dr. Billison is a true hero and serves as a role model for young men and women who love and serve their country.  He was said to have served with honor and humility.

Of the original 300 plus Navajo men who served during the war, there are only 100 survivors.  They received the Congressional Medal of Honor after the fact.  Sam served as public spokesperson as President of the Navajo Code Talkers Association (NCTA).  Sam’s voice was also used as the voice in the GI Joe Code Talker doll. 

The NCTA have a special uniform they wear with pride.  A red cap signifying U.S. Marines, turquoise jewelry for the Dine’, a gold shirt representing corn pollen and a patch representing which of the six U.S. Marine divisions each code talker was assigned.  The light colored trousers represent mother earth and the abalone colored shoes represents sacred mountains.  Out of respect for the code talkers, their descendants do not dress as they do and request that others do the same.

For more information go to Navajo Code Talkers and read the books: Navajo Code Talkers by Nathan Aaseng and Roy O. Hawthorne, ISBN: 8027-7627-2 published by Walker & Company, N.Y., NY and WARRIORS Navajo Code Talkers by Kenji Kawano, ISBN: 0-87358-513-5.