Samuel Billison, a Navajo code talker and educator, died on Nov. 17 of heart complications. He was believed to be 79 or 80.
Billison was born on a Navajo reservation in Ganado, Ariz. After finishing high school in 1943, he enlisted in the Marines. Billison’s fluency in English and in the complex Navajo language made him the perfect candidate for a “code talker.”
During World War II, these Marines were trained to use a secret code based on the Navajo language to encrypt orders relayed over walkie-talkies. Billison and five other Navajo code talkers transmitted more than 800 error-free messages at Iwo Jima.
Neither the Germans nor the Japanese ever cracked their code.
Billison later earned an associate’s degree from Bacone College in Bacone, Okla., a bachelor’s degree from East Central State University in Ada, Okla., a master’s degree from Oklahoma University and a doctorate in education from the University of Arizona. He became a certified K-12 teacher, a high school principal and the superintendent of the Navajo Area School Board Association.
After the war, the Department of Defense ordered the code talkers not to discuss their military experiences. Though honorably discharged, their contributions remained classified until 1968.
For the next four decades, Billison traveled around the world sharing tales of the code talkers’ World War II exploits. He served as the president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, and provided the voice of Hasbro’s Navajo Code Talker GI Joe doll. In 2001, he received the Congressional Silver Medal.