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Wilfred Billey

Wartime code pioneer

Wartime code pioneer

Born: November 20, 1943; Died: December 12, 2013.

Wilfred Billey, who has died aged 90, was a Native American whose language was used as a wartime code to stump the Japanese.

He was one of hundreds of Navajo Code Talkers, whose words are inscribed on American congressional medals given to the group. After the war, Mr Billey worked to come up with the words appearing along the bottom of the medals which read: "Dine Bizaad Yee Atah Naayee' Yik'eh Deesdlii" or "The Navajo language was used to defeat the enemy".

Mr Billey's path to becoming a Code Talker started while he was attending the Navajo Methodist Mission School in Farmington, New Mexico. The superintendent learned that the US Marine Corps was looking for Navajo radiomen to follow in the footsteps of 29 other Navajos who had developed a code based on their language. Mr Billey volunteered in 1943 because he wanted to be with friends who were enlisting.

He fought in battles at Tarawa Atoll, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa with the all-Navajo 297th Platoon, part of the 1st Battalion in the 2nd Division.

He was discharged as a corporal in 1946, finished high school and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas. He served as a counsellor, teacher and principal in north-western New Mexico.

He spent the latter part of his life ranching, farming, fighting for his tribe's right to water from the San Juan River basin and sharing the story of the Code Talkers.

Duane "Chili" Yazzie, president of the Navajo Nation's Shiprock Chapter, recalled spending time in Mr Billey's office when he was a counsellor at Shiprock High School in the late 1960s.

"He was a great man, he had a tremendous, positive influence on many of us," Mr Yazzie said. "He said we needed to recognise the hardship that many of our families experienced and a sure way to get out of that hardship is education."

Mr Billey and others stepped in when a former Code Talker, David Tsosie, was taken off the honours list in 2001 because his discharge papers did not say he was part of the group. They notified government officials and provided documentation.

When former senator Jeff Bingaman called Mr Tsosie at a nursing home to tell him he would receive the belated medal, Mr Billey was there and both of them were said to have just about jumped out of their seats with joy.

Mr Billey's daughter Barbara said her father never considered himself a hero.

"Whenever he talked about the military during that time," she said, "he always told people that heroes were the ones he left behind, that he was not a hero, that everybody pitched in, including the people in the States, the people in the military."

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