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  • Remembering Wilfred Billey

    by Senator Tom Udall

    Posted on 2014-01-16

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    UDALL of New Mexico. Mr. President, last month the flags of the Navajo Nation flew at half mast, in honor of Wilfred E. Billey. Mr. Billey was one of the legendary Navajo Code Talkers. He died at the age of 90 on December 12. His passing is an occasion to reflect on a truly heroic life, and on the vital contribution of the Navajo Code Talkers to America's victory in World War II.

    Wilfred Billey was born on December 28, 1922, in Sanostee, NM. He was raised by his grandparents. In the summers, he herded sheep and farmed in the Chuska Mountains. In 1941, Wilfred was attending Navajo Methodist Mission School in Farmington when a Marine recruiter visited the school. Still a teenager, Wilfred would travel half way around the world with the all-Navajo U.S. Marine Corps Platoon 297.

    The Navajo Code Talkers turned their language into an unbreakable code. They would use the language of the Navajo people as a weapon to defend our freedoms. In battle after battle, in ferocious combat, they used that code time and again to help secure Allied victory. Their service was all the more remarkable in that they fought so bravely for freedom in a world that did not always accord freedom to them.

    Wilfrid's journey would take him throughout the Pacific theater. He would witness some of the bloodiest, most brutal fighting of World War II at Tarawa, Saipan, and Okinawa. The code he spoke, however, would save countless American lives, and help lead to allied victory.

    Despite this work, this brave Marine never forgot those whom he believed to be the real heroes. His daughter, Barbara, in an interview with the Indian Country Today Media Network, recalled her father's humility. ``I'm not a hero,'' he said. ``The heroes are the ones we left behind.'' While most Americans would learn about the battles at sea and on land, the story of the Navajo Code Talkers was kept a secret, until the true purpose of their service was revealed over 20 years later.

    In 2001, Congress honored Wilfred Billey and his fellow Navajo Code Talkers with public recognition and Congressional medals. Wilfred helped draft the words inscribed on the medals: ``The Navajo language was used to defeat the enemy.'' Wilfred Billey defended our Nation during time of war and peril abroad, and he continued to serve by working to lead the youth of the Navajo Nation. He returned to New Mexico and obtained bachelor's and master's degrees, and embarked on a career as an educator. Wilfred worked for four decades in education, including at the Navajo Methodist Mission School, and as principal at Shiprock High School. When he retired, he continued to ranch and farm, and to advocate for and inspire others in his community.

    In Wilfred Billey's long and remarkable life, he exhibited impressive humility and unwavering service to his people, his community, and his country. If we look for exemplars of courage and commitment, we need look no further than Wilfred Billey and his band of brothers among the Navajo Code Talkers and the U.S. Marines. We are all forever in their debt.

    My wife, Jill, and I extend our sincere sympathy to Wilfred's family. He will be missed by those who knew him, and he will be forever remembered by a grateful nation.


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