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"Hi-ye-tay" Dr. Samuel Billison

  • Published
  • By Laura McGowan
  • Aeronautical Systems Center Public Affairs
With November being National Native American/Indian Heritage Month, I reminisce about a very special World War II veteran whose tour of duty played a very integral role in American military history. In February 2002, I had the distinct honor of meeting a Navajo Code Talker who was also the first Navajo Indian to receive a doctorate degree.

I didn't just accidentally meet Dr. Samuel Billison. I looked him up on the Internet and invited him to come to my daughter's elementary school for our 6th Annual Cultural Diversity Assembly, which that year was a tribute to those serving in the military. To my surprise, he accepted the invitation.

The day before the assembly, I picked Dr. Billison up at the Wichita Falls Municipal Airport in Wichita Falls, Texas, and took him to his hotel room. The next morning, I picked him up early to take him to the school.

Three hundred excited kindergarten through sixth-grade students were ushered to the library in class-sized groups throughout the morning to hear Dr. Billison talk to them about being a Navajo Code Talker during World War II.

Trained as an educator, Dr. Billison knew how to relate to the students and break the ice. He taught them the Navajo word that means hello and good-bye-"Hi-ye-tay."

After assuring they had the correct pronunciation, he went on to explain how the military needed a code during World War II that could be transmitted over radio waves that the Japanese could not break.

He told the children that he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943. After testing was conducted, and he was found to be fluent in English and Navajo, he was recruited as a Navajo Code Talker.

He said that 29 Navajo Indians were enlisted and devised the code, which to this day is still unbroken. He was not one of the original 29 Code Talkers, but he was part of the 400 others who were trained and taught the special language.

Even another Navajo who was not trained in the secret language could not understand or break the code. Only the Code Talkers could understand this top secret code. Nothing about the code was ever put in writing. It all had to be committed to memory.

After they were discharged from the military, they were sworn to secrecy and could not disclose what they actually did in the military. Dr. Billison said, "If anybody asked us what we did, we were only supposed to say we fought in the war."

Twenty-three years after the war, the Department of Defense declassified the Code Talkers' mission and recognized the original 29 with Congressional Gold Medals of Honor (some posthumously) for their service to their country. The other Code Talkers, including Dr. Billison, received Congressional Silver Medals.

With Native American Heritage Month on the horizon, I wanted to contact Dr. Billison and talk with him again for this article. I had not talked to him since I gave him a good-bye hug at the airport in Wichita Falls the same evening after he spoke at the school.

I was hoping to touch base with him again; however, my Internet search took me to several obituaries. He died November 17, 2004.

Dr. Billison was a consultant to the movie Windtalkers, and it was his voice that was recorded as the voice of the Navajo Code Talker GI Joe doll.

Meeting him was an unforgettable event. Not only did I have the information from the tribute, I also had the memory of a handshake, small talk and watching the faces of my daughter and her classmates as they got a living history lesson, lunch and a "high five" from a Navajo Code Talker.

Now the only thing left for me to do is to say thank you for your extraordinary service and say, "Hi-ye-tay" to Dr. Samuel Billison, educator and Navajo Code Talker.