Code Unknown - Interview With A Windtalker

Submitted by Brian Pendreigh on Thu, 08/15/2002 - 01:07
Adam Beach in Windtalkers

After years of secrecy, the contribution of Navajo code talkers to America's World War Two effort is recognised in John Woo's latest film, Windtalkers

Chester Nez reckons he was just turning 18 when the Marines came to his school in Arizona one day in 1942. Pearl Harbour had been attacked and America was mobilising for a massive response. They needed men. But the Marines were looking for a particular type of men. Tough, yes. Resourceful, certainly. But there was one vital prerequisite for these special recruits. They had to be Navajo Indians, preferably full-blooded bucks straight off the reservation. 

The Navajo are the largest tribe in the United States, occupying land on the borders of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. They were farmers and herders, a comparatively peaceful people - it is said the Navajo Way is the Middle Way. They never acquired the notoriety of their southern cousins the Apache, or the Sioux or Comanche, though they did get to play them in some classic westerns. Whenever John Wayne shot an Indian in a John Ford movie, you could bet it was a Navajo. 

Nez was born in a wooden shack at a place now called Oak Canyon, up on the Arizona-Utah border. His parents grew corn and pinto beans in the dry earth and kept a few goats and sheep. He is not exactly sure when he was born. But he was young and hardly stopped to consider the mistreatment of his people - the hundreds who died on an enforced march to New Mexico in the 1860s, the starvation and infant mortality on the reservation, even in the 1940s, and the fact the Navajo were still not allowed to vote in state elections. The way Nez saw it, he was being given the chance to represent his tribe and fight for his country. He took it. 

Wayne's world 

Sam Billison was born in a hogan of wood and earth, with a medicine man to guide him into the material world. But he was educated at Roman Catholic boarding school, where pupils were taught to forget the past and think like the white man. He joined up in 1943 because he wanted to be like John Wayne. 

Around this time Wayne gave up killing Indians for a while and almost single-handedly won the war in a series of films including Sands of Iwo Jima. But Billison was at Iwo Jima for real. While Wayne did everything he could to avoid military service, Navajos died at Iwo Jima, for their tribe, their country, or maybe even the desire to emulate the John Wayne they had seen on the big screen. 

When the smoke cleared, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, concluded: "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." It was the final irony - it was not John Wayne who won the battle for the Pacific, it was the Indians. 

Yet when Billison and Nez returned to the United States they were sworn to secrecy for more than 20 years about what they had done in the war, about the secret code they used to send vital messages between troops. The Japanese could intercept and translate radio messages with ease, until the Marines brought in the Navajos. They communicated in a fast, accurate, verbal code based on their own ancient Navajo language and the Japanese were stumped. 

Too "shy" for stardom 

Last year President Bush belatedly presented the Congressional Gold Medal to four surviving members of the original 29 Navajo "code talkers", and to family representatives of others. Their story is the subject of John Woo’s new film Windtalkers, though the Navajo have to settle for a supporting role in their own movie - the main star is Nicolas Cage, playing a bodyguard assigned to protect a code talker. "What these men did is incredible," says Cage. "I’m honoured to have been involved in the film and help bring their accomplishments to the public eye." 

Woo held open auditions for Navajos, but cast only one, in a supporting role, complaining that they were just too shy. There were about 400 code talkers in total, but many are dead now, the remainder old men. Conversation is not always easy. It is taboo among Navajo traditionalists to talk about the dead by name for a start. Those who agree to talk answer questions precisely and modestly - it may be the Navajo Way, but it is not the Hollywood Way. 

Human costs 

Chester Nez has lived among white men for a long time. After the war he worked as a painter in a veterans’ hospital in Albuquerque and now lives in retirement with his son’s family in the New Mexican state capital. But only when asked the direct question "Were you wounded?" does he reveal that he was. "We were making a landing," he says, talking slowly, each word deliberately and carefully fashioned somewhere deep down inside of him. "We disembarked from the landing craft. The enemies were shooting and everything like that, and artillery firing, and all the shrapnel was just flying all over. And that’s where I got caught." 

Nez was lucky - he sustained only a minor foot injury. "One of my uncles was a code talker and he didn’t make it back." His name was David Wilson, he thinks, or maybe Thomas Wilson. He is not sure. Navajos often use several different names anyway. "He was killed in action at Peleliu." Nez too was part of the invasion force fighting for possession of that six-mile long coral islet, site of a Japanese airstrip, 500 miles east of the Philippines. 

Ethnic cleansing 

Two years earlier he had been sitting quietly in a classroom in Tuba City High on the Navajo Indian Reservation. The reservation is home to quarter of a million people, and countless snakes, lizards and coyotes, spread across a bleached, stony desert, more than twice the size of Belgium. The politically correct term is now the Navajo Nation, but many, particularly older people, prefer Reservation or "Rez". Political correctness is the refuge of the humourless and the Navajos are not without a sense of humour. Asked why the Navajo build their houses so far apart, the hero of Tony Hillerman’s novel People of Darkness replies, "We don’t like Indians". 

Nez’s family lived in just such a spot. They saw few strangers and spoke only Navajo. His mother died when he was an infant and it was a struggle for his father to raise a young family alone. One day a Mexican trader came by and told Nez’s father about free boarding schools. 

Some children were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to boarding schools that would bring them up as if they were white. "Tradition is the Enemy of Progress" proclaimed the notice at one. Children were taught English and forbidden to speak their native language. "They were pretty strict," says Nez. Pupils caught speaking Navajo had their mouths washed out with soap. "It was a bitter, brown soap, and they used toothbrushes to scrub our tongues with it." 

Inventing a secret code 

Navajo was a complex language, without a written alphabet and heavily dependent on tonal qualities. The Government estimated only about 30 non-Navajos could understand it, none of them Japanese. The son of a missionary, Philip Johnston had grown up among Navajos, he was one of the 30 and it was Johnston who suggested Navajo might be the answer to the search for an unbreakable military code. 

"When they came by, they didn’t tell us what we were supposed to do in the corps," says Chester Nez, "but they were looking for some Navajos." He and the other 28 original recruits were sent to Camp Elliott, near San Diego. "They put us in that one big room, they locked the door behind us, and they told us to make up a code from A to Zee, and this is all related to our language, our native tongue." 

Wol-la-chee, the Navajo word for ant, represented the letter A, no-da-ih the Navajo word for Ute (another tribe) represented U, and so on. The word had to be translated into English before the listener could work out the letter it represented. But several Navajo words were used to represent the same letter, and code talkers did not have to spell out every word, and many military terms had their own specific term. Da-he-tih-hi translates literally as humming bird, but was used to mean fighter plane. "It took us almost 13 weeks to compile all this code in our new tongue," says Nez. 

Next they would be required to memorise it and use it. Nez shipped for New Caledonia and from there it was on to the jungle island of Guadalcanal. "That’s the first combat baptism that we endured," he says. "That’s where we used code in our new tongue for the first time." 

Friend or foe 

Windtalkers makes a predictable point about racism, though Nez says he never encountered any racial prejudice, or rather he never encountered any anti-Indian prejudice. There was one unfortunate incidence of racial discrimination one day when Nez and another Navajo accompanied an army unit. "When we had finished our duty, sending messages back and forth, and started to go back, two guys approach us and stop us and ask us what we are doing. They thought we were a couple of Japanese. 

"They kept us there for two or three hours until they sent a guy to verify that we were a couple of code talkers working with them at the communication centre. One guy came by and told them: ‘These two guys was the life-line.’" 

By the time of Iwo Jima, Nez had been wounded and had spent so long in combat the military shipped him home on leave, but Billison was there. Asked what the Navajo did at Iwo Jima, he laughs quietly to himself and pauses. "That’s a big question," he says. There is a long pause. "Well, we did practically everything I guess." A little more prompting... "Code talkers were assigned to infantry, tanks, artillery, some were aboard ships. We were just part of it." 

A few Navajos served as ordinary soldiers and one was captured at Bataan. By this time, the Japanese had concluded the code was in Navajo and tortured their captive in an attempt to get him to translate it, but he could not make any sense of jumbled mentions of humming birds and ants. The Japanese broke all the other codes, but they never managed to break the Navajo one. 

There is no doubt about the code’s importance, but Windtalkers ran into problems with the idea that Cage’s character would be ordered to kill his code talker rather than risk him being captured. The suggestion did not originate with the film, but the Marines insist no such order was ever given and the Department of Defense reportedly threatened to withdraw co-operation. 

"They might have done it earlier in the war, but we don’t know anything about it in the latter part of the war," says Billison. A form of words was found, and Cage is told his job is to protect the code, rather than the man. 

Kill the messenger 

Billison worked as a school principal after the war, he now lives in Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation, sits on the tribal council’s education committee and is president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, in which capacity he was consulted about the script. He is upbeat about it. "It will be good to further give people more education or more knowledge about code talkers," he says. 

After the war, the US was unsure when it might have to call upon the Navajo again, so their work remained a military secret. They were forbidden from talking about it, even to their families. "The only thing we told them was we just fought the enemy," says Nez. "That’s about it." But what loving wife or child would not expect full details on how Dad helped John Wayne defeat the Japs? "They kept on asking us and asking us," says Nez. "And we never told them what we really did." 

It was the late 1960s before the operation was finally declassified and by then the world had moved on and no one was interested in a bunch of Indian radio-operators. Their story remains little-known outside the Navajo Nation. Maybe Windtalkers will help spread the word... even if Hollywood does still seem to be struggling to come to terms with the idea that its stars should no longer be shooting Indians, and that it was the Indians who were the real heroes at Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal.