Obit of the Day: Navajo Code Talker
Wilfred Billey joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943 as part of the second wave of Navajo code talkers. Assigned to the 297th Platoon, 1st Batallion, 2nd Division, Mr. Billey and other members would serve in the Pacific theater speaking to each other in their ancient language which was completely unbreakable by the Japanese military.
Mr. Billey and others had to learn nearly 600 code phrases, most of which were Navajo words that disguised english military terms. For example, when speaking about a tank the code talkers would use the Navajo word for “turtle.” A dive bomber was coded as “chicken hawk.” Because all the code talkers spoke directly to each other codebreaking took 20 seconds, instead of 30 minutes or more for codebreaking machines, like the Nazi Enigma.
Note: Although the Navajo code talkers are the best known there were code talkers used during WWII from the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Comanche tribes as well as a short-lived Basque code talker program. These men were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on November 20, 2013.
After Mr. Billey was discharged in 1946 he went to graduate school and became a teacher and principal in New Mexico, his home state.
In 2001, the Navajo code talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor given to those ”who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.” Mr. Billey was asked to create the inscription on the code talker medal which reads, Dine Bizaad Yee Atah Naayee’ Yik’eh Deesdlii, or “The Navajo language was used to defeat the enemy.”
Wilfred Billey died on December 12, 2013 at the age of 90.
(Image of Mr Wilfred Billey, Navajo code talker, during World War II. The image is copyright of Brian Leddy.)
Other Navajo code talkers featured on Obit of the Day: