Wilfred Billey served as a Navajo Code Talker in the U.S. Marine Corps. The 90-year-old died Thursday in Farmington.
Wilfred Billey served as a Navajo Code Talker in the U.S. Marine Corps. The 90-year-old died Thursday in Farmington. (Courtesy of the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President)

FARMINGTON — A Navajo Code Talker from Farmington who used the Navajo language during World War II to communicate military message died on Thursday.

Wilfred Eli Billey, 90, died Thursday at San Juan Care and Rehabilitation Center in Farmington.

He was Táchii'nii (Red-Running-Into-Water People), born for Tl'ááshchí'í (Red Cheek People). His maternal grandfather clan was Naasht'ézhí Dine'é (Zuni Clan), and his paternal grandfather clan was Hooghan laní (Many Hogans).

In 1941, Billey was attending Navajo Methodist Mission School in Farmington when the school superintendent informed students that the U.S. Marine Corps was looking for men fluent in Navajo and English, he told The Daily Times in a story published July 4, 2010.

He was inducted into the Marine Corps in 1943 and sent to Camp Elliot in California, where he completed 13 weeks of basic training.

Billey was a member of USMC Platoon 297, the second all-Navajo platoon, and trained as a radioman.

He was sent to Tarawa in the central Pacific Ocean on Nov. 20, 1943. Billey recalled the island was burning after it was bombed by airplanes in preparation for the Marines' arrival.

"In 72 hours, there were about 3,000 causalities when we landed on the island. I never saw so many people dead -- Japanese and U.S. soldiers," Billey said in the 2010 interview.

After leaving Tarawa, he traveled to Hawaii and joined A Company to replace another code talker who had been killed. Then he headed to Saipan in 1944.

He recalled that a few weeks after leaving Saipan, the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

Billey was stationed in Nagasaki after Japanese forces surrendered in September 1945.

"It was all gone -- all flat. They didn't tell us about the radiation," he said in 2010.

Billey's family referred all questions to the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President, which issued a press release about Billey on Friday.

Wilfred Billey is pictured in 1975. Billey, 90, was a Navajo Code Talker, who died on Thursday.
Wilfred Billey is pictured in 1975. Billey, 90, was a Navajo Code Talker, who died on Thursday. (The Daily Times file photo)

Billey was born Dec. 28, 1922, in Sanostee and was raised by his grandparents. His summers were spent herding sheep and farming in the Chuska Mountains, according to press release.

He attended Toadlena Boarding School, as well as school in Shiprock, before enrolling at Navajo Methodist Mission.

After the war, Billey used the G.I. Bill to attend Wheaton College in Illinois, according to the July 4, 2010 story.

He eventually earned a master's degree and was granted an honorary doctorate from a college in Santa Fe.

Billey worked for 40 years in education at the Navajo Methodist Mission, which is now Navajo Preparatory School; in the Central Consolidated School District, where he served as principal of Shiprock High School in the 1970s; and in the Farmington Municipal School District.

Among the awards Billey received for his military service was the Congressional Silver Medal in 2001.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed a proclamation Friday to have tribal flags flown at half-staff from Friday through Dec. 20 in honor of Billey.

"The Navajo Nation unites and offers prayers for his family and friends during this time of grief," Shelly said in the press release.

Throughout the years, Bloomfield resident Etta Arviso has become an advocate for military service members and veterans, including the code talkers.

Whenever she saw Billy and his relatives in Farmington, Arviso said she paused to greet them.

"He always had a bright smile," she said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.