Code Talkers 60 years later:sudden celebrity

The flashbulbs pop-ped. The microphones reached out across the rope line. Chester Nez was a sought-after man.

Normally, the octogenarian Navajo lives quietly with his son in Albuquerque, N.M. On this day, he was shaking hands with the president, being honored by Congress, and squinting into all those klieg lights.

"This makes me real proud to be honored in this way," Mr. Nez told "Entertainment Tonight." "This is one of the most beautiful things, to be honored like this," he said to "EXTRA." Then it was on to the next coifed reporter as Nez, in short-sleeves and baseball cap, acclimated to sound-bite Washington.

Nez and three other surviving Navajos were in town to be honored for their work in developing an unbreakable code, based on their native tongue, during World War II.

They were among 29 original "Navajo Code Talkers" who were instrumental in helping US forces sneak messages past the Japanese. On Thursday, the government awarded all of the original Code Talkers with congressional Gold Medals for their service.

But with the nation on a sentimental journey through its World War II scrapbook, Nez and his colleagues find themselves the subject of something much bigger than a nation's gratitude.

Their heroism has transported them to that magical place normally reserved for presidents, Sen. John McCain, and the stars of The West Wing: the confluence of celebrity and politics.

Indeed, what brought out most of the cameras was a movie party celebrating "Windtalkers" a movie starring actor Nicholas Cage that is the first feature film about the secret program.

A speedy mission

In 1942, Nez was a 21-year-old student in Tuba City, Ariz., when recruiters were looking for Navajos to enlist. Nez and a few friends signed up, and after basic training, they were given their mission.

At Camp Pendleton, Nez and 28 other Navajos spent months developing the code. First, they had to create written words for their oral language. Then they used those words to express military ideas. "Besh-lo," for example, which meant "iron fish", was the word for "submarine" and "dah-he-tih-hi" which meant "hummingbird" was "fighter plane."

Before the Code Talkers, Japanese code breakers had forced US military codes to become so complex that it sometimes took hours to decode a single message. With the Navajo code, a three-line message could be coded, sent, and decoded in about 20 seconds.

The Code Talkers joined the war as the armed forces were securing Guadalcanal, and their efforts were instrumental to the taking of Guam and Iwo Jima. The code was so successful the military thought of using it after the war and made the Code Talkers keep their mission a secret until 1968.

It is a story so compelling that one can't help but think of it as a film. Even President Bush, on hand to honor the Code Talkers at the ceremony, seemed to be making a movie pitch.

"It is a story of ancient people, called to serve in a modern war. It is a story of one unbreakable oral code of the Second World War, messages traveling by field radio on Iwo Jima in the very language heard across the Colorado plateau centuries ago."

Ready for the big screen

Sometimes even the best stories need a little help, and with an eye on big box office numbers, "Windtalkers" has received a lot of it. The film has major Hollywood talent behind it, including director John Woo and actors Christian Slater and Cage.

Not particularly interested in letting the facts get in the way of a good story, the filmmakers have changed a few elements, calling the film "inspired by true events." According to the trailer, Cage plays a marine bodyguard charged with protecting a Code Talker - unless the Code Talker is captured, in which case Cage's mission is to "protect the code at all costs."

But Nez and his fellow Code Talkers don't remember such assignments. None says he was paired with anyone. And the capture Nez remembers is the night he was held by US troops who thought he was Japanese.

Not to worry, says Capt. Matt Morgan, Marine Corps Motion Picture Liaison. "Aside from the premise, which is embellishment, it's very accurate." And the premise? "It's a dramatic concept really," Capt. Morgan says, "an interesting notion."

Alan Dale June, another of the original Code Talkers, is more skeptical. "Well, let's see what it looks like," he says rather unenthused.

Whatever their opinions, between now and Nov.9, the premiere date for "Windtalkers," the remaining original Code Talkers will likely be hot commodity.

At the movie reception, as drinks poured and platters of shrimp made rounds in the Library of Congress's Great Hall, Nez smiled through tired eyes as he did yet another interview. "For a long time it was waiting. Just waiting. Now, today, I am very happy."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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