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Photo by Sean Weaver/NMHU
New Mexico Highlands’ Native American queen, Vanessa Frank, right, and Native American service coordinator, Rochelle Yazzie, bless a handmade tile Nov. 11 in honor of Wilfred Billey, a Highlands alumnus who served as a Navajo Code Talker in World War II.

Highlands Honors Its Veterans

When Wilfred Billey and Allen June attended New Mexico Highlands, no one knew they were heroes. No one knew the hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives that were saved because of them during the Second World War.

“Both men came from humble origins,” said Highlands’ director of alumni affairs, James Mandarino, during a Veterans Day ceremony honoring the university’s students, faculty and staff who’ve served in the armed forces. “Both men helped create the special language used by the Navajo Code Talkers.

“They were sworn to secrecy about the Code Talker Program,” Mandarino said. “For decades, they couldn’t even speak to their families about their experiences. It wasn’t until 2001 that their valiant service was recognized with Medals of Honor.”

The Japanese never cracked the Navajo Code Talkers’ work. After initial hesitation, the Marines quickly learned the value of the Navajo Code Talkers code. While other codes took time to decode, the Code Talkers’ system could be deciphered by another Code Talker almost immediately and, more importantly, securely.

During the Veterans Day ceremony, the Office of Alumni Affairs placed a handmade tile in the university’s Centennial Tower in Billey’s honor. A tile for June, who died this year, is being made and will be added later.

The ceremony also helped start a new Alumni Office project: identifying Highlands students from all eras who served in the armed forces.

“We hope to memorialize them in Kennedy Lounge,” Mandarino said. “This is a very special project to me.”

Anyone having information regarding New Mexico Highlands alumni who served in any branch of the military may call Mandarino at 505-454-3199.