FAIRBANKS - Shortly after the start of World War II, breaking the American military code was like solving a crossword puzzle for Japanese cryptographers.
Then the U.S. Marine Corps turned to the Navajo Nation to recruit fluent young Navajo speakers to devise a code to stump enemy forces in the Pacific.
"They knew where the troops were. They knew where the ships were," said Samuel Billison, one of 120 surviving Navaho Code Talkers, and president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association.
At an Alaska Native Veterans Association meeting last week, Billison gave a first-person account of how he and his kinsmen were able to stymie the Japanese code breakers throughout the war.
The first 29 Navajo youths, ages 16-18, drafted into the program were locked in a room to develop a code of their own, Billison said. In essence it was a new Navajo dialect, made all the more challenging by the language's complex syntax and intonations.
As new Navajo recruits came in, they were taught the code without books or paper; it was done totally by memorization.
The original group developed three alphabets using different words for the same letter to reduce repetition and make the code harder to break. They also used Navajo names in reference to military equipment.
"Anything in the air was named for different types of birds," Billison said. "Anything on the ground was used for things on the ground."
"Gini," the Navajo word for chicken hawk, meant dive bomber. "Nimaci," the Navajo word for potato, meant hand grenade.
When the first code talkers started transmitting on radios, an officer decided to make a test for accuracy and speed.
The first message in American code took two hours to send and translate. The Navajo message took just 2.5 minutes.
"When we send the message, it begins being decoded as it comes across," Billison said.
The experiment was tried again with the same results.
Code talkers were assigned to the infantry, tanks, artillery, communications and ships. Billison served with the 5th Marine Division and was one of six code talkers who translated more than 800 messages in the first days of the fight for Iwo Jima.
Out of 421 trained code talkers, only 13 were killed, Billison said.
"Everything was top secret. Only four people know what goes across that radio."
Billison also gives credit to his Navajo spiritual beliefs for his and so many other code talkers' survival.
"I think this is what saved a lot of lives," Billison said, pulling an amulet filled with corn pollen from his pocket.
Billison said many returning Navajo war veterans, including himself, underwent a four-day "Enemy Way" ceremony.
"This ceremonial cleans your mind, your body, any blood on you. ... I hardly had any nightmares on account of this."
It wasn't until 1968 that the American military finally declassified the code and those involved were able to talk about it.
But it still wasn't until July 2001 that the surviving five of the original group of 29 code breakers were awarded the Congressional Medals of Honor. All the other surviving code talkers were given Silver Congressional Medals of Honor.
The irony of drafting young Navajos to use their wits and fight for the country that had hunted them down and cloistered them on reservations wasn't lost on the Marine veteran.
"There was a declaration in the (U.S.-Indian) treaty saying that you (Indians) no longer would carry a gun; you would no longer fight," he said.
Nor does he forget that government schools literally tried to beat the language out of reservation children.
"At the BIA (school) the Indian language was prohibited. We couldn't talk the language," Billison said. "If we did, they kicked us, we got spanked, they punished us. Then when war comes they say, 'Hey we want to use the Navajo language.' "