- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Navajo Roger Willie, a so-called "code talker" in John Woo's new movie, "Windtalkers," lacks acting but not military experience.

Mr. Willie, who plays Charlie Whitehorse, is an artist and graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he also teaches courses in the Navajo language. He was attracted to an open audition for the movie in Durango, Colo., three years ago.

The Marines recruited Navajos as radiomen during World War II in order to shield strategic battlefield communications from Japanese eavesdropping. The film spectacle focuses on Marines during the Battle of Saipan in June 1944.

Mr. Willie spent four years in the Army, attached to an airborne division in Fort Bragg, N.C. He was discharged in 1994. The one-week boot camp for the film, which seemed like an ordeal to Canadian actor Adam Beach, cast as a Navajo named Ben Yahzee, had a nostalgic appeal for Mr. Willie.

"I looked forward to it in a way," he says during press interviews for "Windtalkers" at the Four Seasons Hotel. "When you first leave the military, you just want to leave it behind, but then you begin to think about everything you experienced, including the theme of brotherhood that's so important to this film. You wish you had stayed in contact with more people you soldiered with."

The idea of using Navajo as a secure form of radio communication was suggested to the Marines by Philip Johnston, who became familiar with the unwritten language while growing up on a reservation with his parents, who were missionaries.

Linguistic experts consulted by the government felt confident that no counterparts in Japan and Germany were familiar with Navajo. Used exclusively by the Marines, the system remained secure throughout the war. Code talkers were sworn to secrecy, in part because it was assumed the program might need to be reactivated in the future. It wasn't. Although generations of Marine radiomen knew about it, official declassification was delayed until 1968.

"There were several attempts at a written, or transliterated Navajo, prior to World War II usually from the perspective of translating the Bible, the words of Christ, things like that, in order to bring the Gospel to Indian people," Mr. Willie says. "There were competing versions. It's not until the 1950s and 1960s that people began to get into the written aspect in a comprehensive way. The incentive then was different: Indian education acts and self-determination. Indian families wanted to take more control over how they educated their kids and preserved the culture."

Mr. Willie takes the opportunity to emphasize the importance of spirituality in Indian tradition. "I'm an artist, and there's a Bible verse I'd like to illustrate one of these days," he says. "It says something like, 'No greater love than he that lays down his life for another.' Spirituality has always been a foundation for the Navajos. To the Indian people, it's almost shocking that people want to eliminate prayers and things like that from education. To us, it's the core of education."

Urged to discuss his language classes, Mr. Willie says: "What I've learned from classroom experience and the feedback from students is that Navajo is a tonal language. Just a slight mispronunciation changes the whole meaning. It's also dependent on what we call glottal stops. You can shuffle it like cards. It's also so descriptive that rather than say one particular word, you could take a couple of sentences or a paragraph to describe the thing you're talking about. So it's very challenging."

Mr. Beach, who belongs to the Soto tribe in Manitoba, allied with the Chippewa south of the border, says he struggled to master a handful of words in order to sound more or less fluent in scenes depicting Navajo transmissions on the battlefield.

"It's difficult," he says. "I mastered 'apple,' 'cat,' 'dog,' 'ear,' 'elbow,' a few phrases. I skipped the 'b' word list. It doesn't sound like much, but the words I managed were hard enough to do."

A veteran code talker, Albert Smith, was hired by the film company as an adviser during the production, which used Oahu, Hawaii, to simulate the Saipan locales.

Chester Nez, 81, attended the interviews with his son, Michael. The elder Mr. Nez recalls being recruited for the code-talker program while living on a reservation near Gallup, N.M., when he was 18.

"Guadalcanal was the first island the Marines invaded, and that's where we started," he says. "It was the first place the code talkers went into action. I got there when it was almost secured. I was with the 1st Marine Division. Eventually the 2nd and 3rd divisions arrived, and I spent most of the war with the 3rd Division. We went to Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu. I was also with the Army's 27th Infantry Division for a little while when they borrowed four code talkers from the Marines."

Mr. Nez is one of the handful of surviving code talkers from the original group of 29 recruited and trained in 1941-42. He attended the Washington ceremony last July at which President Bush presented Congressional Gold Medals to the five survivors and family members of the deceased code talkers.

At that time, the movie was expected to open in November 2001, anticipating a Veterans Day promotional push. MGM postponed the opening when faced with the uncertainty of movie prospects the week after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The film finally reaches theaters this weekend.

Mr. Nez says he liked the movie but can't confirm its depiction of code talkers being protected by specially assigned Marine bodyguards. In the film, Nicholas Cage is supposed to shadow Mr. Beach, and Mr. Willie is paired with Christian Slater.

"That's another story," Mr. Nez says. "I didn't have no bodyguard. I heard later that an order came up sometime during the war that if a code breaker was in a very bad situation, maybe captured by the Japanese, his bodyguard would have to kill him. I didn't believe that.

"Later on, when I got out of the service, one of my buddies told me he had heard that order, but it was not something I can confirm. I do think the movie will help people appreciate what we did. For so many years, we weren't supposed to talk about it. People would ask exactly what we did in the war, and it was hard to tell them."

Mr. Nez feels permanently haunted by the war. He credits the movie with reawakening a lot of memories, not all of them welcome.

"It stays with you," he says. "You don't know whether you're going to live or die. Your head is spinning all the time. When you're sending a message, a sniper could be scoping in on you from long distance. It's a horrible thing to be right in the middle of all that danger, bullets flying and everything. I was really lucky when I came back in one piece.

"Sometimes I still have bad dreams," he says. "I go to bed and start dreaming about the Japanese. They're right by my bedside. When I came back, I hoped that the medicine man could heal those dreams, heal all the bad things that happened. A ceremony was done for me, but it didn't work. There was a lot of bad omens, guys drinking firewater and fighting as it was going on. I think that's why I wasn't healed. Everything should be quiet and holy. That's the way you get cured. I spent a lot of money to get that cure.

"Now I just live with the memories, from day to day and night to night."

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