- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

Of the 400 Navajo code talkers who outwitted Japanese deciphering experts in World War II, 100 are still alive, with four of the original 29 present Thursday to receive the Congressional Gold Medal from President Bush in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Their faces registered stoic acceptance as they heard themselves called "truly American heroes … defended America and America's values in a way no other Americans could" by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall, who helped spearhead the belated effort recognizing the code talkers' contributions to winning the war, called "their accomplishment ever more heroic given the cultural context in which it happened." The men, whose ancestors had been driven from their original tribal lands in the mid-19th century, were recruited by the Marine Corps to serve in a unique capacity and then, partly due to classified military protocol, were ignored and mostly went unknown for the rest of the century.

Even so, Allen Dale June, 79, a retired accountant from Salt Lake City, called the fuss "kind of sudden." He wore a red and green sport shirt and a Navajo necklace that matched the one on his wife, Virginia, a nurse, who was busy taking notes in the audience for the couple's autobiography.

Heroes being in short supply these days, the men and their families, plus such tribal representatives as the colorfully bedecked Miss Navajo Nation, were feted grandly at a reception in the Library of Congress' Great Hall after the ceremony. Few politicians were present there was heavy voting going on across the street except for New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who, as author of last December's bill honoring the men, spoke in praise of the group for the second time that day.

Seeing publicity too precious to ignore, MGM executives hosted the afternoon reception as a preview of their coming attraction this fall, the movie "Windtalkers," based on a book about the code talkers. Nicholas Cage, who plays a Marine in the film, was there with celebrity arm candy Lisa Marie Presley. Mr. Cage's co-star Adam Beach and director John Woo were also present to titillate radio and TV reporters. Mr. Cage sped away early, surrounded by his minders, leaving Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti and MGM head Alex Yemenidjian to take up the slack.

"This film will win an Academy Award," Mr. Yemenidjian boasted, adding that "It's not very often when you can tell an important story" like this. He had never heard about the code talkers until he saw the script, he said.

Not so for former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, a self-described history buff on MGM's board who said, "It was a moving ceremony because they were the centerpiece."

"There has been a lot of fuss since I got out of bed," said former code talker Chester Nez, 80, the center of attention in a red baseball cap, who was confidently feeding stories into microphones and flash bulbs. "I like it though," he said with a laugh.

Past recipients of the Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow, include President George Washington, Thomas Edison, Irving Berlin and, most recently, Rosa Parks. The Navajo language, employed to relay sensitive military information in the Pacific theater of operations, has no alphabet or symbols and cannot be readily translated except by native speakers, who use a range of sounds to convey meaning. The talkers' code, sent from one to another, was a special invention that substituted Navajo for English words in a symbolic manner.

The word they used for "America" was "mother."

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