Navajo code talkers memorized language to stump Japanese

Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2002

FAIRBANKS -- Shortly into World War II, breaking the American military code was like solving a daily crossword puzzle for Japanese cryptographers.

That was when the U.S. Marine Corps turned to the Navajo Nation to recruit fluent young Navajo speakers to devise a code to stump the Japanese enemy in the Pacific.

''They knew where the troops were. They knew where the ships were,'' said Samuel Billison, one of 120 surviving Navaho Code Talkers, and president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association.

Billison gave a first-person account Thursday at an Alaska Native Veterans Association meeting of how he and his kinsmen were able to stymie the Japanese code breakers throughout the war.

The first 29 Navajo youth, ages 16-18, that were drafted into the program were locked in a room and developed a code of their own, Billison said. In essence it was a new Navajo dialect, made all the more challenging by the language's complex syntax and intonations.

As new Navajo recruits came in, they were taught the code without books or paper; it was done totally by memorization.

The original group developed three alphabets using different words for the same letter so there was no repetition of the letter in a word or a series of words. They also used Navajo names in reference to military equipment.

''Anything in the air was named for different types of birds,'' Billison said. ''Anything on the ground was used for things on the ground.''

For example, ''gini,'' the Navajo word for chicken hawk, meant dive bomber. ''Nimaci,'' the Navajo word for potato, meant hand grenade.

When the first code talkers started transmitting on radios, Billison said some soldiers complained that the Japanese had taken over communications. So an officer decided to make a test for accuracy and speed.

The first message in American code took two hours to send and translate. The Navajo code, just 2.5 minutes.

''When we send the message, it begins being decoded as it comes across,'' Billison said.

The experiment was tried again with the same results.

The code talkers were assigned to the infantry, tanks, artillery and communications and some were aboard ships. Billison served with the 5th Marine Division and was one of six code talkers who translated over 800 messages in the first days of the fight for the Iwo Jima.

Out of 421 trained code talkers only 13 were killed, Billison said.

''Everything was top secret. Only four people know what goes across that radio.''

Billison also gives credit to his Navajo spiritual beliefs for his and so many other code talkers' survival.

''I think this is what saved a lot of lives,'' Billison said, pulling an amulet filled with corn pollen from his pocket.

Billison said many returning Navajo war veterans, including himself, underwent a four-day ''Enemy Way'' ceremonial.

''This ceremonial cleans your mind, your body, any blood on you. ... I hardly had any nightmares on account of this.''

It wasn't until 1968 that the American military finally declassified the code and those involved were able to talk about it.

But it wasn't until July 2001 that the surviving five of the original group of 29 code breakers were awarded the Congressional Medals of Honor. All the other surviving code talkers were given Silver Congressional Medals of Honor.

The irony of drafting young Navajos to use their wits and fight for the country that had hunted them down and cloistered them on reservations isn't lost on the Marine veteran.

''There was a declaration in the (U.S.-Indian) treaty saying that you (Indians) no longer would carry a gun; you would no longer fight,'' he said.

Nor does he forget that government schools literally tried to beat the language out of reservation children.

''At the BIA (school) the Indian language was prohibited. We couldn't talk the language. If we did, they kicked us, we got spanked, they punished us. Then when war comes they say, 'Hey we want to use the Navajo language ... ''', Billison said.

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