Navajo Code talker continues oral tradition
By Sgt. Joshua Bozeman
| | May 22, 2003
MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga. -- A Navajo code talker who served with the 2nd Marine Division during World War II visited the base May 22.
Wilfred Billey held three speaking engagements during his two-day visit, addressing base civilians first at a luncheon held at the Crossroads Restaurant. He later spoke to mostly enlisted Marines at the Base Theater and later still; he spoke again at a dinner held at the Base Conference Center here.
Billey explained how simple his life was growing up on a reservation in New Mexico, with no electricity or running water and with Navajo as a first language.
One day his grandfather came riding up to his Hogan, or mud hut, with two horses and told Billey, "I am taking you to school." Billey hopped onto the horse and traveled the estimated 20 miles to the nearest school.
"Talk about culture shock," said the 79-year-old Navajo. The school was Billey's first exposure to the English language and a culture outside of his own.
Because of school rules, Billey remained at the school for nine months before he was able to return home for a visit with his family.
In school he was first introduced to the Marine Corps. He joined the Corps and was assigned to the second all-Navajo platoon to go through boot camp where he and 58 other Navajos were indoctrinated into the Marine Corps and taught the Navajo code.
While they learned the complex code, the Navajos also learned to operate three types of radios, which they would either carry or come across while operating in the field.
According to Billey, one of the most difficult parts of forming the Navajo code was using it to relay precise information, such as coordinates or troop movements because several words in the Navajo language have various meanings. Adding to the difficulty is the language's lack of military terms.
Despite these problems, the Navajo Marines managed to create the only code that was never broken during World War II.
Billey pointed out that it wasn't until 1971 when the Navajo Code Talker Association was formed that the term "code talker" was first used. Until then, they had been addressed simply as 'radiomen.'
Billey was involved in several island-hopping campaigns. Although he served in combat he emphasized that the 13 code talkers who lost their lives during the war were the true heroes.
When the war ended, Billey used the Montgomery GI Bill to attend college, which had been his dream since childhood.
"I served my country by fighting in the war, and then my country served me by sending me to college," said Billey.
After earning a degree in secondary education, Billey worked his way up from a high school counselor to principal, where he served for 15 years.
Billey currently works with the Navajo Code Talker Association, sharing the rich history of the Navajo people and how they helped the Allied Forces win World War II with groups and organizations across the country.