National Navajo Code Talkers Day, which occurs on August 14, formally recognizes the unique World War II contributions of Native American soldiers who served as elite cryptographers, encoding and transmitting messages using a complex Navajo language-based code that was never broken by Japanese forces in the Pacific.
Established by President Ronald Reagan, National Navajo Code Talkers Day honors the World War II Navajo Code Talkers but also recognizes original Native American Code Talkers who served the U.S. Army during World War I and included Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi, and Cherokee veterans.
Samuel Billison was one of the most well-known Navajo Code Talkers. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1943 and served as a Code Talker in the Pacific Theater. In 1945, Billison served on the front lines at the Battle of Iwo Jima. His unit transmitted more than 800 coded messages in an essential 48-hour engagement for control of the strategically imperative island. Billison received a Congressional Silver Medal for his bravery in battle.
Billison later served as president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association.
Billison was often sought as a source for books and movies, and his voice was used for the Hasbro Navajo Code Talker G.I. Joe action figure released in the 1990s. He recorded common code words in Navajo and English for the toy, which is now a collector’s item.
Billison served as a consultant for the 2002 Hollywood film, “Windtalkers,” for which he worked closely with actor Nicolas Cage.
At home, Billison served on the Navajo Nation Council and worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reorganize the Navajo education system. He was an educator, principal, and sports coach.
As a middle school basketball coach at St. Michael’s Indian School near Window Rock, Arizona, Billison left a substantial impression on Bill Frazier, a site manager with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management (LM).
Frazier remembers Billison as quiet and humble, never speaking openly about his military service.
“So I was most impressed when I heard him talk on television about his time during the war,” Frazier said. “I am proud of his fortitude and will to live — he is an inspiration to us as people. I’m proud to have known him,” Frazier said.
Billison’s legacy as a Navajo Code Talker is featured as part of the exhibits at the LM Atomic Legacy Cabin in Grand Junction, Colorado. Billison’s Navajo Code Talker G.I. Joe action figure is also on display at the cabin.
Members of the Billison family attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new interpretive center on June 6, 2019, and brought a newer action figure and a framed photo of Billison to LM. The newer action figure is used as part of the cabin’s interpretive programming, allowing students to hear Billison’s voice as it might have sounded decades ago at the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Billison died November 17, 2004.