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Windtalkers: Navajo heroes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ? As a young boy growing up near Continental Divide, N.M., Roger Willie heard stories about the Navajo Code Talkers from relatives who said they were instrumental in winning World War II by using the Din? language to transmit secret codes.

"I always thought of them as heroes, but I never dreamed I'd have the chance to portray one of them," Willie said in a recent interview. "It's such an honor to represent the Code Talkers in this movie. I'm very proud of their heroic efforts, and it's great to see them finally getting the recognition they deserve."

Willie, 37, an artist, Army veteran and graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson who holds two bachelor's degrees, won the role of Charlie Whitehorse after a last-minute audition in Durango, Colo. where he had taken his nephews to try out at an open casting call. It was his first time acting.

"My character, Charlie Whitehorse, is about my age and is very knowledgeable in a traditional and cultural sense," Willie said. "He's a man of courage and someone you could count on. I used my own military training in the 82nd Airborne Division to help me understand what it must have been like for them."

He also relied on the stories and experiences of Albert Smith, a Navajo Code Talker from Gallup, N.M., who served as an advisor to producers John Woo and Terence Chang.

"He told me a lot of stories about what it was like for young Navajos fresh off the reservation to go through boot camp and then be selected to train as code talkers."

"Windtalkers" is set during the battle of Saipan and features Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater as marines assigned to protect code talkers Ben Yahzee (played by Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse.

The notion for using the Navajo language to create a secret wartime code was the brainchild of Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary who grew up on the Navajo Nation and became fluent in the language. He convinced the Marines of the Navajo language's usefulness and correctly assumed that the complicated language could be fashioned into an unbreakable code to transmit information over radios between Marine units and command centers.

At Iwo Jima, for example, the Code Talkers transmitted more than 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period. The code became an indispensable tool for World War II military communication and some 400 Navajo men served as Code Talkers in the Pacific battles.

Smith was only 15 when he and his brother, George, 17, enlisted in the Marines, in 1943 and were sent to boot camp in San Diego.

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"We moved up our age so that we could get in," he said. "Then we went through a class with other Navajos to learn the code which used the Navajo clan system to distinguish squads, platoons, battalions, regiments and divisions. We also used the names of animals and plants in the code: hummingbird was a fighter plane, eagle was a transport plane and an aircraft carrier was a bird carrier. We had to memorize more than 200 words."

Because of its success and possible future use in combat, the Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy about their involvement in the war and the code was not declassified until 1968.

Smith said he was happy to see the Code Talkers finally recognized for their contributions after all these years. Last July, the Navajo Code Talkers received Medals of Honor from President Bush and they were honored at several events over the past year.

"I think of it as a ripening idea," he said. "It tastes good even at this age because you had to wait so many years for it to ripen like wine kept in the cellar so long. It finally comes out and it tastes good."

Smith characterized the film as "very good" because it is the only film that portrays how important military communication is in battle.

"In combat, radio communication is the brainpower of military operations and secret documents are their lifeline," he said. "Without that, all units in battle would not know what all the other units are doing. Even the generals wouldn't know what was going on. This is the only movie that really focuses on communication, and the Navajo language was key to America's success."

Smith said sometimes people ask him why he chose to fight a white man's war and he hopes the movie will help create some understanding about that. "To my way of thinking, it was my war because a foreign country wanted to destroy Mother Earth. And Mother Earth is the basis for my freedom, to think, to laugh, to talk and speak anytime with my spiritual father. People talk about freedom ? that is my freedom."

Willie, who is working to complete graduate school, said he intends to use his newfound celebrity status to help fund Navajo language programs with the goal of putting more Navajo-speaking teachers in the classroom.

"Our language is the center of our culture and this movie helps explain to America why it is so important for Native people to retain our culture and identity," he said.

Originally scheduled for release last fall, "Windtalkers" was held for distribution after the devastating events of Sept. 11, 2001 because producers thought the climate was inauspicious for promoting a war film. It will open in theaters nationwide on Flag Day, June 14.