Foundation for Endangered Languages
Samuel Billison: Navajo Codetalker 7 December, 2004 The Guardian, London
Samuel Billison, who has died at Window Rock, Arizona, at an age believed to be 78, took part in one of the second world war's oddest enterprises, and went on to earn a PhD. He was one of the small band of Navajo "code talkers", young men who used their complex language to send and receive messages that were indecipherable to the enemy.
He was born on the earth floor of a poor hut in the Navajo nation in the western American desert. His parents expected him to be a shepherd, but from childhood he had an ambition to join the United States Marines, and he did so the day he graduated from high school in 1943. Soon he found himself recruited to the code talkers.
In 1942 the US military had been alarmed at the speed with which Japanese cryptographers broke their codes. An engineer, Philip Johnston, had a brilliant idea. His parents were missionaries, and he had grown up on Navajo land and knew the language. It was unwritten and rarely spoken outside the reservation; it also had infinite subtleties that even native speakers found difficult. "If you say something wrong, you might be cussing out your father-in-law," Billison explained in the scores of postwar speeches he gave about the code talkers.
Marine officers at Camp Pendleton, California, recruited 29 Navajos aged 16-18 and told them to invent a code. They gave ships the Navajo names of fish; vehicles were animals and aircraft were birds. For a tank they used the word for a turtle; amphibious craft were called frogs. The letters in place names and words that did not have Navajo equivalents were spelled out in Navajo alphabetical form, with three choices to avoid repetition.
When officials worried that the code was too cumbersome, a trial demonstrated that the code talkers could encrypt, transmit by phone or field radio and decipher a message in under three minutes. It took orthodox decoders more than two hours to do the job.
The Japanese never understood the Navajo code, although eventually there were 421 talkers; two were killed in action and each always had a marine bodyguard under orders to shoot them if they were captured, in case they might break under torture. That awful eventuality never happened.
Billison was ordered with five other Navajos to the vital but terrible battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. They transmitted more than 800 messages without error in a crucial 48 hours of the 36-day action on the Pacific island, in which 6,819 US marines and more than 20,000 Japanese died.
"Were it not for the Navajos," said Billison's commander Major Howard Connor, signal officer of the 5th marine division, "the marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Billison liked to remind Americans that the code was devised by "a bunch of 16-year-old kids who were sheep herders".
The full story of the Navajos and their contribution to the war remained secret until 1968; three years later Billison helped to form the Navajo Codetalkers Association and was its president for several years. By that time he had gone to college on the GI Bill, and gained his doctorate in education at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. He became a teacher and later a school principal. He served for years on the Navajo Nation Council and under the Bureau of Indian Affairs he helped to reorganise the reservation's education system.
The extraordinary story of the code talkers was featured in scores of books, documentary films and articles, in most of which Billison was usually quoted. Then he was invited to become the consultant to the Hollywood movie, Windtalkers (2002), about the group.
It starred Adam Beach as a code talker, to the disappointment of Billison, who had hoped the part would go to an authentic Navajo; Nicolas Cage played his battle-fatigued minder. It was not a big box-office success, but Billison gamely described it as "a great war picture".
The year that it was released, Congress presented each of the five survivors of the original 29 code talkers with a gold Medal of Honour. Billison and other survivors received a silver medal. Fewer than 100 of the code talkers are still alive. Kay Williamson
Roger Blench writes:
Kay did an enormous amount for Endangered Languages even before they were fashionable. Her contributions to African linguistics will be well-known to many readers of Ogmios. A short vita together with a preliminary list of her publications can be found at: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/roger_blench/Kay%20Williamson%20life%20RMB.htm
Kay Williamson left four major unpublished manuscripts which should be brought to press. These are: