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Navajo Code Talkers: A Guide to First-Person Narratives in the Veterans History Project

Biography of Navajo Code Talker Samuel Billison, together with a video recording of his oral history interview from the Veterans History Project archives.

Samuel W. Billison

Samuel Billison during his oral history interview in 2004

Unit: Headquarters Battalion, 5th Marine Division
Dates of Service: May 1943 - May 1946
Battles / Campaigns: Iwo Jima

"We finally wrote a petition… over 6,000 names went into the Senator’s office—that’s how we got the Medal." (Video interview, 37:56)

Samuel Billison was born in a hogan on the Navajo reservation near Ganado, Arizona in 1925. He attended St. Michael Indian School through the 8th grade, and then Albuquerque Indian School for high school. He joined the Marine Corps upon graduating from high school, enlisting together with his classmate Samuel Jesse Smith.

After completing boot camp, Billison was sent to the Navajo Communication School at Camp Pendleton to train as a Code Talker. He was initially unenthusiastic about the role, but became intrigued by the Code after learning some of its intricacies. After completing all of his training, Billison was assigned to the 5th Marine Division, where he initially served in the division headquarters, though he eventually volunteered for the division's reconnaissance company after learning it would earn him a bonus of $50 a month. In February and March of 1945, Billison participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima with the 5th Marine Division. Billison was immensely proud of the Code Talkers' achievements, once remarking "who would think a bunch of sheep herders would come up with a code that nobody ever broke?"

After the war, Billison became an educator - earning a PhD in education and working as a teacher, principal, and administrator. Serving on the Kinlichee school board and Navajo Area School Board Association, he was acclaimed for his efforts in reorganizing the education system on the Navajo reservation. Billison also served two terms on the Navajo Nation Council as a delegate for Kinlichee. He twice ran unsuccessfully for the post of Chairman of the Navajo Tribe. Billison played a key role in ensuring that the Code Talkers' legacy would live on. He joined the Navajo Code Talkers Association in the late 1970s, and served as the organization's president for many years. Billison helped organize the effort to get the Congressional Gold and Silver Medals approved for the Code Talkers. The toy company Hasbro recorded Billison's voice to be the voice of their Code Talker "G.I. Joe" action figure.

Dr. Samuel Billison passed away in November 2004 at the age of 78.

Note: this interview focuses on Billison's life before and after the war, to hear some of his wartime experiences described, listen to him speak during the WWII Reunion: Navajo Code Talkers discussion hosted by the Library of Congress in 2004.

Oral History Interview