- The Washington Times - Monday, July 1, 2002

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. When the president placed Congressional Gold Medals around the necks of four Navajo men last summer, it thrust the World War II veterans into the limelight after 56 years of relative silence.
Those four, and one too ill to make the trip to Washington, are the only survivors of an elite group of 29 communications specialists the Navajo Code Talkers to whom many credit the Allied victory over Japan in 1945. The men developed an uncrackable code based on the Navajo language.
Now, Hollywood is trying to deliver their tale in a big-budget film to audiences worldwide.
"Windtalkers," an MGM movie starring Nicolas Cage and directed by John Woo, opened June 14. Cast members include Adam Beach, a Saulteaux Indian from Manitoba, Canada, and Roger Willie, a Navajo, as well as 50 Navajo extras and a cameo appearance by Albert Smith, a veteran code talker.
Mr. Smith said that even though the movie fictionalizes some of the code talkers' story, he is glad to see it shared at last.
"It's a good story on the basis of the code," he said.
Mr. Smith was one of the original 29 code talkers recruited by the Marine Corps in 1942. About 300 Navajo Marines eventually were trained to use the code.
Few people outside the Navajo Reservation had even heard the language, and the Japanese never broke the code, which used Navajo words to represent letters or words in English. For example, the Navajo word for hummingbird pronounced Da-he-tih-hi referred to a fighter plane. The code word for America translated to "our mother," or Ne-he-mah.
During the Battle of Iwo Jima alone, the code talkers transmitted more than 800 error-free messages in 48 hours.
Their accomplishments largely have been absent from history books because the code was classified until 1968.
"It was top secret from the training. You couldn't take notes or anything," said Sam Billison, president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, a veterans group.
Even today, Mr. Smith doesn't talk much about his wartime experiences. Tales of battle and destruction are not part of the Navajos' oral tradition, he said.
"The elders asked us not to talk about our war stories."
The bulk of the film's action takes place during the Battle of Saipan, a key step in the United States' Pacific island-hopping campaign.
Mr. Smith, 77, appears in the movie at a bus station while Mr. Beach is leaving to join the Marines. In real life, Mr. Smith delivered coded messages about troop movements and supplies on the Marshall and Marion islands.
When word about the film spread across the expanse of the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, many Navajos wondered: How can a movie about the Navajo code talkers star Nicolas Cage, a white man?
The studio sent representatives to the reservation to explain that Mr. Cage and co-star Christian Slater would play Marines charged as bodyguards for the code talkers. Producers met with the code talkers' association and hired one code talker as a consultant. The studio also held several open casting calls on and around the reservation.
In the movie, the bodyguards are given orders to protect the code at all costs, including killing code talkers if the Japanese try to capture them.
Bill Toledo, a code talker with the 3rd Marine Division on the Solomon Islands and in Guam, said his bodyguard was with him at all times.
Mr. Smith, however, said he never had a bodyguard and knew few other code talkers who did.
In reality, "none of the code talkers were captured," Mr. Toledo said. "But you know how Hollywood is." The movie does show a capture.
Members of the code talkers' group also read the script by John Rice and Joe Batteer and recommended some changes.
"There were several things in the script that were not kosher on the Navajo Reservation," said Mr. Billison, including one scene in which a medicine man caught a snake, cut off its head and ate the animal.
"We told them no that is not right," Mr. Billison said.
The soundtrack includes flute and drum music that invokes the spirit of American Indians some of it courtesy of Mr. Willie, a flute-playing Navajo painter who makes his movie debut as code talker Charlie Whitehorse.
Mr. Willie is excited that the movie will raise awareness of the Navajos and their contribution to the war effort.
"I hope that one of the things this film will do is educate not only non-Indians, but Indian peoples themselves on how important it is to understand your history and learn as much as you can about it," he said.


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