William Dean Wilson
(1923 - 1999)
Ashiihi -- Salt Clan

"Before the war, I was a sheepherder. Then I enlisted on the advice of one of my teachers. The first time I fell into a foxhole with the enemy during the landing on Tarawa was a memorable occasion. Nearly getting our radio foxhole bombed at Guadalcanal also stands out in my memory."


Navajo Code Talker, William Dean Wilson, 76, of the Ashiihi and Todikozi Clans, passed away on December 15, 1999, in Shiprock, New Mexico, after suffering a heart attack. Born in 1923, in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, Wilson began his illustrious career serving the public and more specifically, the Navajo people when he entered the Marine Corps at the age of 15. Instead of putting his real age on his military documents, he wrote down 18.

According to Wilson's cousin Wallace McGilbert Sr., Wilson lied about his age because "he wanted to become a soldier". "There were a lot of young boys from Shiprock High School (where Wilson was in school) that were drafted or enlisted. He (Wilson) wanted to go. The only way to qualify was to claim that he was 18."

Wilson fought with the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Marine Division, at Guadalcanal, New Zealand, New Hebrides, Tarawa, Hawaii, and Sasebo. He was one of approximately 425 Navajo Marines who used the code that the Japanese military were never able to break. Before, the Japanese had broken every other code developed by the American military. Since the Navajo code was a success, more Navajo men were enlisted into the Marine Corps and thus helped the United States during World War II.

McGilbert said that his cousin remained strong during the war because "he used his own language and he knew who he was. He believed in himself as an Indian." After his initial service, Wilson re-enlisted into the Marine Corps. "There was nothing here, no jobs, so he went back," McGilbert said.

Upon his return from the war, Wilson became a reservist with the National Guard. According to his sister, Ada Scott, he also began work at the Wingate Ordinance Depot as a Security Guard. "Every time he came in (home) he touched base with the family. He was very close to his family," Scott recalled.

In the 1960s, Wilson applied to serve as a Judge on the Navajo Nation. The current Navajo Nation Chief Justice, Robert Yazzie, was working with DNA, The People's Legal Service, in 1976 when he had to appear before Wilson several times. "He was a very sincere man. He was so serious he frightened me sometimes, but inside he was a gentle man," Yazzie said. Yazzie said he knew Wilson more on a personal level. He said that they attended many sweat ceremonies together. "We shared a lot of life experiences, prayers and songs together," Yazzie added.

Elaine Benally, a Court Clerk in Shiprock, New Mexico, also remembered when she worked with Wilson in Window Rock, Arizona. "He looked real mean, but he could just crack a joke and make everyone laugh." Benally said that the "smart and intelligent" Wilson taught her "to accept discipline." "He's one of the great leaders that I worked with."

Wilson also formed the dance group Diné Ba Allil during this time. According to his cousin "the Navajo people were losing their traditional ways." The dance group traveled the reservation re-introducing traditional dances.

After Wilson retired as a Judge, he became more involved in dancing and even started participating in pow-wows, being initiated by the Kiowa Blackfoot Society of Oklahoma as a Gourd Dancer. Navajo Times photographer, Paul Natonabah recalled seeing Wilson's column "Powwow Trail" in the newspaper in the 70s. Wilson submitted pow-wow stories and photos from all over the country.

Along with dancing, Wilson also loved nature and the mountains. McGilbert recalled his cousin returning to his home in Teec Nos Pos and packing a bag and then walking up to where he used to herd sheep. There he would camp for a couple of nights. "When he goes up to the mountain, any mountain, he stands up there and prays to the east. He also picks some herbs..." McGilbert said.

Wilson had been living in North Dakota with his wife, Mary Louise Defender Wilson when he returned to Shiprock during the latter part of November. McGilbert said, "He came back to my place and said he was hungry for Mutton Stew so we cooked Mutton Stew for him." That was the last time McGilbert said he talked to his cousin.

Funeral services for Wilson were held Monday, December 20, 1999.



  1. Photo of William Dean Wilson at U.S. Marine Corps Monument, by Kenji Kawano, past Official Navajo Code Talkers' Association photographer, and honorary member.
  2. Navajo Times, Vol. XXXVIII No. 52, Thursday, December 30, 1999, p. A1, A2., "Family mourns Navajo warrior", by Stacey Benally, Navajo Times Intern.

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