164: Windtalkers with Judith Avila

The 2002 John Woo movie ‘Windtalkers’ tells the story of a Navajo code talker during World War II. Is the film historically accurate? Judith Avila is the author of Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.

Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.

Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!


Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.


Dan LeFebvre: [00:01:53] Let’s start the same way the movie does by introducing us to one of the main characters, a Navajo tribesmen by the name of Ben Yahzee and in the movie he’s played by Adam Beach. As we all know, it’s common for movies to change the names of real people or make a composite character who’s based on multiple real people.

Of course, sometimes they just make characters up altogether. So where does the character of private Ben Yahzee fall? Was he a real person?

Judith Avila: [00:02:20] No, he was not a real person. It’s really impossible for me to know whether he was a composite of several people. He could have been. He had kind of that cute Navajo sense of humor.

They have tend to have a very selfish, deprecating sense of humor. And I loved when he got on the bus and he was so surprised to see his friend played by Roger Willie. And Roger said to him, I didn’t want them to think you were the best we had. That was very typical Navajo. So they tried to make him seem Navajo, but, he was not a real person and I’ve never seen the Ozzies spelled that way.

Yazzie is a rather common Navajo last name, but it’s spelled Y-A-Z-Z-I-E. And there were a couple of different code talkers with the last name and the surname Yazzie. But, I certainly don’t think they were Ben Yahzee. I think he was meant to be a fictional character resembling a real code talker.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:03:30] What about on the flip side of that? Nicholas Cage’s character, Sergeant Joe Enders, do you know if he was a real character or not?

Judith Avila: [00:03:38] Totally made up.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:03:39] That usually it gives a pretty good indication of how historically accurate a movie is when both the main characters are made up.

Judith Avila: [00:03:46] Yeah.

Now he could have been based on someone that’s someone who wrote the movie knew I couldn’t find him anywhere in history.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:03:55] Speaking of the historical side, the movie doesn’t give us a lot of historical context around why the Navajo language was used by code talkers. The only explanation that I remember getting was Jason Isaacs character major millets he’s explaining to then corporal Joe genders, that the Marine Corps developed a new code based on the Navajo language.

And there’s another line of dialogue later on in the movie that mentioned something to the effect of how the code talker can do in two and a half minutes, what used to take hours to do so, can you give us a little more historical context around this? Why the military used the Navajo language?


Really what had happened is the Japanese were literally kicking our butts in the Pacific. And we were attempting to hop from Island to Island, conquering islands between Australia and Japan, till we get close enough to Japan, to actually attack from our Island base in Japan. But. Our communications were so terrible because the Japanese were able to intercept them and then they decide for everything.

So largely a Marine operation in the Pacific. Also there were army operations as well. The coach Parker squirrel Marines, by the way, the Navajo code talkers. Okay. The Marines, we can’t do this Japanese before they would. I know it was really awful. And there was a young man named John who grew up on the Navajo reservation when he was a child, because his parents were both missionaries there and he heard of this issue.

And he went to the Marines, said, do you know, Navajo is almost impossible language. And it would be really great language to use in a code because it’s not written buy a book about Navajo, hardly anyone can speak who didn’t grow up on the reservation. He grew up on there for quite a few years, but never could speak well.

And the Marines, listen to him.

It’s not written down at all. So it is completely just a spoken language passed on from generation to generation.

Judith Avila: [00:06:28] It was back then. Now Navajo is written with a very complex alphabet, tremendously complex verbs. If you were spanking Navajo and the verb for pouring water out of a pale.

Is different from the verb for pouring rocks out of a bag pouring dirt container.

Everything is okay. Everything else that’s extremely complex.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:07:05] Wow. Well then the movie, they, the way, at least the way I understood it when they were kind of explaining how this works, not only was it the Navajo language itself, but that they swapped words. Like I think they used the word. Tortoise for a tank and the word, many big guns for artillery.

Did they also do that or was it pretty much just using the language?

Judith Avila: [00:07:25] No, they did not just use the language, but they did kind of word substitution and they did that because eventually there were over 400 code talkers, over 700 words in the language, plus an alphabet. And they wanted people to be able to memorize and they especially have to be able to memorize things that made sense because they knew that they’d be having to transmit messages.

And it’s the word obscure in some way, it just would be much too difficult. Can memorize them be consistent, any mistakes. That was, that was his biggest fear that he would make a mistake that would somehow cause the deaths of one of his fellow Marines.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:08:22] Oh man. Yeah. I could only imagine the immense pressure for something like that.

Judith Avila: [00:08:27] Yeah. There was a lot pressure on those guys.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:08:30] Well, you mentioned the battlefield and that leads into my next question because the main or primary plot lines in the movie is we have Sergeant Enders who, you know, fictional and, and private Yazzie. And Enders is tasked with essentially protecting Yazzie on the battlefield.

Did they do this sort of Teamup where they had a code talker, teaming up with another Marine to protect them on the battlefield,

Judith Avila: [00:08:54] not in the way that they depicted it in the movie. Really what they should have shown is the coach work in groups of four, always two code talkers together. One who carried the radio and the other one was attached to him, the microphone and the headset, because we didn’t have the radio was, it was a TBX radio, one guy crank, and the other guy would transmit.

So the whole feel of that, because they always had with the galaxy. Rather than yelling with another code talker. Now they’re worse. Although the Marines would neither confirm nor deny this. There were supposedly. Body guards who were watching the code talkers buddies with the code talkers. They had to go take Lee.

I just thought it was my buddy looking out for me. We all had each other’s backs buddies later on. We learned, yeah, probably was a case where the code talker would have been shot. If it looked as though the Japanese were going to capture him and that angered a lot as a coach, I asked Chester how he felt about that.

And he said he was a very thoughtful man. He said, you know, I’ve thought about it. And I would much rather have been shot by one. My buddy Marines then tortured to death. Bye. The needs.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:10:42] Oh, wow. Yeah. Yeah. And they do talk about that very briefly in the movie, that idea of shooting to save the code.

Judith Avila: [00:10:50] Yes. Yes.

And he knew the code was well, once they started using it, he knew the code was so unique and so successful. Yep. Really became the unbroken in modern warfare. Get into the hands of the Japanese.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:11:13] There was a part in the movie. I remember where the Japanese did capture a Navajo. He was not a code talker. And so he wasn’t able to help them break that code.

Do you know of anything like that, where if they were able to capture the language, then they had this extra code on top of it, but would they be able to piece that together or was it that much that more complex on top of just the language?

Judith Avila: [00:11:39] It was so complex on top of the language. They could not break it.

Yeah. but there was a man that I found in my research named Joe, who was a Navajo and he was captured by the Japanese and they tortured him. They left him out in the cold until his feet froze to the ground. They did all kinds of horrible things to him, trying to get him to break the code. Somehow they decided it was Navajo.

No one knows how they decided upon that. But joking, this is total at all. No sense

Dan LeFebvre: [00:12:20] that little bit there. I mean, that, that part of it was fascinating to me because it throws on the complexity of the language, but then the complexity on top of it and that what you were saying earlier about you’re in, in the middle of a battlefield, and you’re trying to remember the code.

For these very precise things of, you know, where’s the artillery going to drop? We know all these different, I, I couldn’t imagine.

Judith Avila: [00:12:43] I couldn’t either. I mean, they were literally told if you have a message to send and you’re being shot at usually leaves your rifle slung over your shoulder and you send that message and then they’d have to run because the Japanese could triangulate their position.

Even though they couldn’t tell what they were saying. They could hear the transmission,


would hit the exact spot where they, so if there was of pressure and if those guys had grown up, going to school, I don’t know how they would have withstood the pressure, but from the time they were little kids, they were under a lot of pressure because boarding school was horrendous. And I think that really prepared them.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:13:41] Hi, the movie doesn’t make any sort of mention of boarding school. What are you referring to there?

Judith Avila: [00:13:45] Well, the movie doesn’t show any Navajo culture whatsoever, except for a little ceremony. That would never been performed in the midst of battle on an Island. Roger Willis’ character. Sure. Blessing Adam beaches.

Sure. And that would not have happened at home

boarding school, the Navajo kids, all indigenous children. We’re forced to attend and it’s their parents allow them to attend. The police will come and get them and bring the kids to school. And the boarding school was supposed to erased the Navajo culture and make these kids part of the larger culture.

Luckily for us and we’re we’re too, it didn’t work, but the kids kicked or hit or punched or had their teeth brushed with that Brown cells. Why soap? They were caught speaking Navajo at boarding school. So Chester said he could feel that kind of frozen the whole time he was in boarding school. And he knew he’d better not make mistakes.

And he knew that the teachers were always watching for mistake and I see make one, you get hit. So it said, none of us spoke English when we arrived there, but we had to learn it and we learned it. We learned it under pressure. So I thought about that a lot and saw that gave them a real facility for being able to under pressure.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:15:31] Yeah, unfortunate. It sounds, I mean, it sounds like it was a horrible situation to be forced to learn in that way, but it sounds like that inadvertently prepared them for thinking under pressure and being able to translate these messages.

Judith Avila: [00:15:46] Yeah, there were quite a few other things in their culture that repaired them.

I mean, the memorization, since Navajo wasn’t written, they were used to memorizing and there are all kinds of things that contributed, but boarding schools certainly played apart.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:16:04] Wow. Well, heading back to the movie that leads into something that I wanted to ask about and we see some pretty. Blatant racism from some of the white soldiers in the movie.

And yeah, there’s an example where Christian Slater’s character is. I think he was, he was teamed up with Charlie white horse and they’re playing poker around the table. And Christian Slater’s character has asked Charlie if he wants to come sit and play, then Noah Emmerich’s character chicks. Like, are you serious?

Like, you know, this poker game has to be segregated and there are other examples of, of racism there, but did the code talkers face racism during the war?

Judith Avila: [00:16:40] You know, you would think that they would have an especially Chester’s group since they were the original 29 code talkers. And I asked him about that and he said, you know, we proved in basically trainings.

We were damn good Marines. I mean, all the newspapers were writing about them. They could hardly believe their proficiency on the rifle range and in all of the Marine Corps training. They called them Superman. And, he said, Marines, only care if you’re a good Marine. And he said, we had their backs, they had our backs.

I never experienced any kind of prejudice. He did say that they referred to them as chief. They call them hate chiefs. Come on over here. And I don’t believe that that was any kind of a drug was that,

you know, being a chief,

we consider it prejudice to use that, but he said it was. Like a term of respect didn’t he said missions that we were sent out on. If they needed a bunch of men for missions at night or something, he said, the Marine officers always wanted the Navajos to be part of their mission. He said, thank you. Trust us.

And he said with good reason, we were damn good Marines.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:18:16] That part of it, honestly, just from what you were saying earlier with the boarding schools and then leading to that kind of how the movie portrayed things. Honestly, I expected a, a completely different answer. Like I expected there to be some inherent racism.

I mean, that’s, that’s unfortunate, but you know, that’s just something I expected. So I’m glad that, that there wasn’t,

Judith Avila: [00:18:35] I’m glad too, because at least the guys over there. Though they were a team, all of them, whether they were Navajo or white or Hispanic, they were changed and Chester, you know, character about his fellow Marines.

He really did. And of course, this is only one man’s experience and he was quite an incredible man. And perhaps others had a different experience.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:19:03] Yeah. That’s, that’s true. That’s true. Well, heading back to the movie, something else that movies do a lot of time is they change up the timeline. So I’m curious how the timeline here, stacks up to history earlier in the movie, they mentioned that they know this is a new code and.

Just before that in the movie, we saw a date being 1943. And then later from that, we find, you know, the battle, the big battle in the movie is the battle of Sai pan, which we know from history began in June of 1944. So would it be safe to assume that the U S didn’t start using Navajo code talkers until later in the war?

Like 43 or 44?

Judith Avila: [00:19:41] No. actually it was a new code to them on shore because the old shackle code had been wrong for a long time. Chester was the other 28 men who designed the code with him were recruited as Marines 1942, couple of months after Pearl Harbor was bombed. And design the code after they all pass basic training, they weren’t allowed to know what the secret mission they volunteered for until they’d all passed training.

And then they designed the code timber of 1942 and some of the elders went to other. But I think the timeline’s fairly accurate. And I think it was a new code as far as Marines were concerned, but they did start using code talkers right away after the code was designed in 1942.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:20:53] Okay. Now that brings up an interesting point because you mentioned that Chester is one of the ones that help design the code and in the movie, all we pretty much see as there they’re being taught the code that already exists.

So were there different rounds of, of code talkers that were then if you know, Chester was part of the original, then they trained others that came in

Judith Avila: [00:21:13] exactly. You got it right on. It was so successful. So quick. So unbreakable that the Marines immediately wanted more code talkers. So they recruited the actively young Navajo men, and there were about 400 additional men code talkers, and they were trained by existing, always stayed in San Diego to train the new upcoming code talkers.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:21:46] I’m going to just assume then and give, give the movie a little bit of a benefit of a doubt here saying that the sense this is happening later in the movies, timeline, maybe they’re just a, an alternate level of it.

Judith Avila: [00:21:58] Yeah, no, that’s true. They didn’t show the design of the code, which was fascinating, but it was already in use by the time we get the movie.

So they were being trained in San Diego and then sent out. Yeah, but that, that left it as though maybe some white guy or maybe the Marines was not the case.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:22:29] That’s. I mean, that’s, that’s exactly, as I was watching the movie when, Ben is in there in the training room and they, you know, they arrive and there they’re being trained on this code.

What I assumed was this is a code that the Marines came up with as you know, maybe based on the Navajo language, but they came up with this and they’re teaching it to other Navajo to be able to pass it on, you know?

Judith Avila: [00:22:51] No, no.

No way.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:23:01] I mean, I guess that’s when you know, you have a good code, but nobody else understands it. Right.

That leads into something else I’m curious about, because the way that we see things in the movie, we get kind of an idea for how the code talkers worked. And you’ve mentioned this a little bit earlier, you know, on the, on the battlefield in groups of four, but then we also see in particular, there’s a scene where they’re talking to someone, I believe on the USS California to bombard coordinates on the Island.

And we see cutting between. Ben and Charlie on the Island and then cutting to someone else. I don’t remember if we get his name or not, but another Navajo code talker on the ship and meanwhile, the court, and then it does cut to the Japanese and they’re kind of intercepting. Like, are they under water? Is this even English?

Like they don’t know what’s going on. But how well did the movie do showing how they communicated? Did there have to be a, another code talker when I’m assuming they’re, as you mentioned, they were all Marines, which of course, you know, division of the Navy, but on all the ships that did he chip have to have a code talker?

Like how, how did they communicate back and forth?

Judith Avila: [00:24:09] They would have for code talkers on the land for code talkers on the ship. One of the shifts, at least that could bombard the land and they communicate back and forth about what needed to be done. And then there were usually two more code talkers, kind of Strode in wherever they were needed.

And often times these guys would be transmitting messages for 36 hours at a time. No sleep, no food. I don’t know how the heck they did it. And when the Marine division went to RNR in Australia because they couldn’t replace them yet, the original guys. So it was, it was rough. That was a rough duty.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:24:54] Wow.

Were there any situation situations then where they were forced to adapt in some way I’m thinking of, you know, if you have a four on land and four on the ships is particularly on land, you’re in the middle of the battle and that’s almost a bottleneck where w you know, what happens if, if they’re incapacitated or killed or whatever that might be.

They have to revert to not using the code. Then

Judith Avila: [00:25:18] I would imagine that’s what they’d have to revert to the four were not all together. It was. And then, there were the two extras that were ready to jump in.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:25:32] Okay. Okay. Now I was imagining all four together and I was like, that seems like an easy target that, you know, the Japanese may not know where they are, but

Judith Avila: [00:25:41] okay.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:25:41] Because what you were saying earlier about the Japanese, being able to tell that they might not say no, what they’re saying, but they know that there’s somebody over here start bombarding right away. It seems like, well, if they’re all four together, that’s going to be an issue.

Judith Avila: [00:25:54] Yeah, it’d be bad for birds with one stone that

Dan LeFebvre: [00:26:00] in the movie we do see that Sergeant Endres gets a silver star for something that he and private Yazzie did together during the battle.

And as I was watching this again, another, the assumption that I got while I was watching that. Ben Yazzie did not get the metal because he wasn’t white. Going back to the racism there that we saw in the movie, the commanding officer that gives it to Sergeant Enders. He great job. And Anders turns, it says, you know, Yazzie did it too.

And the commanding officer is just like, keep it up. Good work. You know, they just kind of,

Judith Avila: [00:26:34] yeah. Wow. Ooh.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:26:36] Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Judith Avila: [00:26:38] Very few of the code talkers. Until 2001, when they got the congressional gold medal for the original code talkers, and the reason the Marines gave how was the new category in the Marines.

And they did everything by the book and there were no rules in the book for how a code talker. The few that did get were commended for other duties, they were assigned to maybe even on the fly, they code talking duties, but we’re regular Marine tasks. And so the Marines got around the idea of prejudice that way.

And. I can’t speak to the idea of prejudice the way the movie showed it because Chester didn’t actually see that. But it does seem to me that the code talkers we’re so important to the war effort. They really could have done something to try to get them some sort of recognition. Earlier on in 2001, when the original guys congressional gold medal.

Only five of them were still alive.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:28:04] Yeah. That’s a long time after the war.

Judith Avila: [00:28:06] Yeah. Yeah. Years later.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:28:10] Wow. Was it was the code talking the existence of it, but a top secret thing, like maybe that would be one reason why they didn’t receive commendation or maybe they weren’t allowed to talk about it or anything like that.

Just thinking of code in general tends to be more top secret.

Judith Avila: [00:28:24] It was top secret. And when the Navajo code talkers. Less the Marines after the end of the war, they were told they couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Not their families, not their friends, nobody. And it wasn’t relieved from secrecy until 1968.

So that was 23 years. Yeah. If they had recognized them, then. In the 1968, a considerably larger amounts, still alive to receive the honor and are still talkers. History says their families never knew they were code talkers because they died and the family never found out they were Navajo code talkers.

They died before they were allowed to chalk.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:29:14] Wow. Yeah, that’s, that’s a great point about how in the sixties would have been a perfect time. So when you come out that, you know, this is a thing that happened during the war. All right. This is a great time to give commendations to the people involved in that.

Judith Avila: [00:29:28] Yeah. And at that point we were using computer generated codes for communication. They weren’t going to use the spoken code again, and that’s why they from secrecy. Chester had me put in the back of his memoir and he said the Navy got a few things wrong when they released.

And we went through it word by word by word. Fascinating. And it was incredible to me to see his memory. Yes deal.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:30:08] Yeah. To be able to recount it so many years after the fact, I’m trying to remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.

Judith Avila: [00:30:17] Hi.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:30:22] Ah, that’s impressive. Wow. Wow. It’s just speaks to the type of person that he was. That’s that’s impressive.

Judith Avila: [00:30:28] Yeah. It was really an incredible man knowing him literally changed my life.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:30:34] So how well do you think the movie did portraying the Navajo culture?

Judith Avila: [00:30:38] The little bit of culture portrayed. I found a couple exceptions for one thing.

When one of the Navajo men was hit by artillery. He wouldn’t yell or scream the way that he did when he was hit in the movie. I asked Chester about that and I said, well, why not? We didn’t draw attention to ourselves if we need


Dan LeFebvre: [00:31:12] Say that again.

Judith Avila: [00:31:14] Yeah.

Heading back to

Dan LeFebvre: [00:31:18] the movie. We see some interesting character arcs in the people who are fighting alongside the code talkers. We talked earlier, but you know about, about Enders and Sergeant Henderson. They start to

Judith Avila: [00:31:31] be

Dan LeFebvre: [00:31:31] friends, the code talkers that they are assigned to protect, you know, initially they were both against it.

And then, you know, towards the end we see, you know, Sergeant Henderson is just playing their harmonica alongside private white horse. You know, he’s playing on his flute, playing harmonica there, they’re playing together. Can you give us some insight into how the military treatment of the code talkers changed over the course of the war from?

It sounds like, you know, from. The early forties when they, when they started to, towards the end of the war?

Judith Avila: [00:32:01] Well, I think the most important thing is the Marines realized how valuable they were and out of the 420 code talkers that eventually fought in the war, only 13 were killed and they were always front lines.

So they were, Oh, we send positions. So it shows you how carefully they were protected. And the Marines were told over and over. These guys are making the difference for us. Some happens to these guys you’re in trouble as well as mobile. And so they were the code talkers were well-respected. Yeah. And I think, yeah, I mean, they certainly have, but it was a good thing that the Marines recognized how crucial they worked for the war effort.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:32:59] Now you mentioned that they were only in the Marines, but then, you know, if the Marines were talking about how crucial they were, do you know if any other branches of the military wanted to use them as, as code talkers for their operations?

Judith Avila: [00:33:13] Yeah. the last style in the chest or fought on was called encounter, and that was an Island that was being attacked, the army.

They were trying to conquer that Island and they needed code talkers. And Chester and a couple others went over just for a few days to help them with babble that they needed them for. And while they were there, one of the soldiers captured them and held up 45 to Chester’s head. You are Japin or Marine uniform.

You’re a spy. And I’m going to shoot you right here. And Chester convinced him to go talk to his communications officer. And of course the communications officer, nearly st. Jude on the spot,

but it was, it had been suggested to the army Navajo code talkers. And the letter I found in my research from the army, responding to the suggestions basically said, what the heck can a bunch of stupid Navajo kids do that an army man can do. And it was very much. And the irony is that they ended up needing  groups.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:34:40] Yeah. When you were talking about that, that the guy holding the gun to Chester, the, the first thing comes to mind is there’s a scene in the movie where granted, you know, they’re all Marines, but there’s a scene where, I don’t remember which character it was, but he, he tells me. Ben Yazzie that he looks like a Japanese soldier.

Like he stole the uniform and

Judith Avila: [00:35:00] it was a big

through the whole mosaic. I forgot it.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:35:08] Yeah. The same guy that, you know, didn’t want him to come to the poker stable. Yeah. He was kind of the. The, the racist one throughout the entire movie. But yeah, that, that story kind of sounds like that. I wonder if maybe they, they pulled some inspiration from that maybe other branches of the military and how they reacted to them.

It sounds like there may have been more prejudice involved than the Marines.

Judith Avila: [00:35:28] I think there might’ve actually, historically many of our native American tribes are related to Asians. No came across the land bridge from Asia. There is a relationship. Okay. But,


Dan LeFebvre: [00:35:51] yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m curious. Cause you mentioned some, you know, other native Americans and. What about the Navajo language made that work for code talking and not some of the other languages? Was it primarily because it wasn’t written down and they knew that if it’s not written down, then the Japanese are not going to know what it is.

Judith Avila: [00:36:12] Big deciding factor. And another large deciding factor was. There were about 250,000 Navajos on the reservation, and many of them joined the military. So there were plenty of young Navajo men who could be used as code talkers. Now I think some of the other native languages we’re just as complex and could have been used and actually 33 tribes have been recognized by Congress.

As having provided code talkers, but it was a different kind of situation. It was mainly in Europe and it was primarily a communications officer overhearing a couple native Americans talking to each other and then saying, Hey, could you send a message in that language? And they do that for a while, but it really wasn’t.

The Navajo.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:37:11] Okay. It was just speaking the language, not necessarily a code on top of it sounds like. Okay. W one of the things taking a step back from the movie and just looking at it overall, a big impression that I got was that the code talkers were only trained to be radio operators. Yeah, they were in the battleground, but it was really only because they needed to be there to transmit messages and such.

And of course I mentioned earlier, they have the Marine body guards assigned to them. And so the overall idea that I got watching this was that. For lack of a better term, the code talkers were seen more as just a supporting role to the rest of the fighting force. How well would you say that the movie did showing the roles that the code talkers played during the war?

Judith Avila: [00:38:03] Well, I think they were misleading in that they didn’t have them working with each other, but also the code talkers when they went through base. They got the highest marks on the rifle range. They were sharp shooters. All of them were sharp. Shooters are better. And so it was difficult for them to be carrying a weapon, but to know that they couldn’t use it, if there was a message to be sent to take priority.

And, the movie. I didn’t create the right atmosphere for the way things work between the code talkers themselves, depending on each other. And also between the code talkers in the Marines, because they would occasionally get special assignments, the code talkers, and they did them so well. The Marine sought after them to do.

Anything else besides being a coach, the movie kind of implied, they’re just do code talk. And that was their primary objective, but yeah, they were so good at everything else as well that they were sought after as Raiders and just all kinds of things that the Marines might need them for.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:39:31] Hmm. Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s, that’s a great way of phrasing that.

Cause that’s exactly what I was thinking when I was watching the movie is you’re, they’re pretty much just there to be the code talkers and that’s it. Like, they’re not allowed to do anything else, but it sounds like it was very, very different.

Judith Avila: [00:39:44] Very, very different. Yes. Okay. They did a lot of, I mean, whenever the Marines could find time for them to do other things, they couldn’t because the messages were crucial.

The message is sent by the code. Talkers went so fast and in the midst of battle, that was crucial. I mean, they couldn’t use the artillery where to shoot because four hours later it was meaningless,

Dan LeFebvre: [00:40:13] right? Yeah. No. And we, time is, time is crucial in battle. I can only assume I’m not. Been in battle, but I would assume that that would be very important for sure.

If you were in charge of directing the movie, what’s one key thing that you would have changed about it.

Judith Avila: [00:40:30] Certainly I would show much less Nicholas cage and much more code talker. Another thing in the movie that threw me off was the reaction to the food. I think they’ve both been yellow, white horse.

Took a look at the food kind of looked askance at it. And Chester had told me, Oh my gosh, the Marine food was so good in basic training. You said no one ever on their plate. Now later on, when they got to the Island, they didn’t always have the best supplies, but he said they ate everything. They could get their hands on.

Anyway. But I think what I would have shown is that the end of the movie, I would show how our attitude as a nation had changed towards the code talkers because when Chester died and he was the last of the 29 original code talkers. His funeral was incredible. I mean, the Marines flew officers from Quantico, Virginia to Albuquerque tendency.

You enroll the governor of New Mexico, had all the flags flown at half staff. Current and past Navajo nation presidents came to the funeral. There were something like five or 6,000 motorcycle honor guards taking part. I mean, it blew me away. Yeah. The funeral was in Albuquerque, but Chester was buried in the national cemetery in Santa Fe and the police closed the 55 miles of freeway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe for the funeral Cortez.

So there were cars pulled over to the side. From the side of the road, there were people on the overpasses, fire trucks, crews, and that’s something I would have loved to see in a movie now, of course,

was made the fact that we came to so appreciate. Our code talkers once we understood the history. And so if I were making a movie now, that would definitely be part of it. Yeah. That would be an important part of it. Just show we learned as a nation.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:43:04] Yeah, no, it sounds like that would be a very, a great way to honor his memory.

You know, it was very different than the implication that I got watching the movie. It’s

Judith Avila: [00:43:15] very different from the feeling I sent him flowers. They believed he broke the curse of the Bambino when they finally won a world series again.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:43:27] Okay. Well, that’s a, that’s another story. How does that tie, how does it, how does he tie into the red Sox?

Judith Avila: [00:43:33] Well, I’m getting into Chester, not the movie.

He was in Boston speaking at Harvard and the red Sox got wind of that. And you know how superstitious baseball players are. And they called up someone at Harvard and said, Hey, this guy is here in town. Do you think we could get him to throw the game ball out and give us a blessing? So he got a police escort to Fenway park.

And he got there just in time to throw the game ball out. He threw strikes. He gains the team and they started to do, and he went back home and during the world series itself, when they were down, they called him. Chester you’d think you could give us another blessing. And he gave them another blessing.

And after that, they, every game of the world series won the world series for the first time, since they traded, they bruise to the Yankees.

White roses.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:44:53] That’s so great. That’s such a great story. I had no idea

circling back to the movie. Real, real briefly. What is one of the biggest myths about the code talkers because of the movie?

Judith Avila: [00:45:12] Oh, it’s the biggest one. Is that the Marines actually the Marine body guards actually killed code talkers. There was not a single instance where a Marine body guard killed a code talker.

Now, perhaps they’d been told that they had to it’s captured.

Nicholas cage, Roger Willie. Sure. Yeah,

Dan LeFebvre: [00:45:45] I think it was a grenade or something

Judith Avila: [00:45:48] and it was pure Hollywood.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:45:51] Well, it sounds, you mentioned earlier there’s a 420 and only 13 of them died.

Judith Avila: [00:45:57] Yep. And one was killed by friendly fire because he made the mistake. So standing up at a Spock’s hole in the middle of the night to take a leak and he got shot because they thought he was the Japanese, the Japanese used to invade at night and it was just a terrible mistake.

So 12 were actually killed in the line of duty and the 13th was killed by friendly fire. The poor man who shot him, never got over it. I’ve been told so Chester, I knew of his family and he said he just, he couldn’t get over the fact that he killed a fellow Marine.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:46:40] Wow. Yeah. I can only imagine the guilt that would, would come with that.

Judith Avila: [00:46:44] Yeah. And yet they’ve been told, do not stand up in the foxhole. If you have to go to the bathroom, use your helmet, which is, yeah,

Dan LeFebvre: [00:46:56] it’s not, but it’s also, it goes back to, I mean, I haven’t experienced war, so I, I can’t, I can only assume. But there’s so many, like I would make mistakes like that. I make, I make stupid mistakes all the time at home without the pressures of battle and people shooting at me and all this stuff.

And so I can only imagine. You know, I would, I would be somebody that would make, make a mistake. Like not remember things.

Judith Avila: [00:47:22] I mean, I can great sympathy for this guy because it was a natural instinct. You got to go.

Why not?

Dan LeFebvre: [00:47:32] Yeah, you don’t think about it, but thank you so much for coming on to chat about wind talkers. I know you had the honor of working with Chester. We talked throughout this about, on his memoir called code talker the first and only memoir by one of the original code talkers of world war II. Now, for someone listening to this, can you let them know a little bit more about your book and where they can get a copy as well as learn more about your work?

Judith Avila: [00:47:54] Sure. The book is really a first person account. As told to me by Chester, I recorded the stories for three years and then I arranged them all into kind of a book format, wrote them down and got them published. Yeah. The book came out from penguin. It’s been a best seller ever since it came out in 2011, it still is.

It’s selling more now than it has for the last five years. It’s incredible. It’s really many people have said to me, I was absolutely there in the Fox hole with them like women, as well as men have said that. So I feel like in writing this with Chester, we’ve preserved such an important part of history.

You can find the book pretty much any bookstore course, Amazon. And, many museums carry it pretty much anywhere. Any other mainstream book would be, it’s been a life changing experience working with Chester and learning about the Navajo culture and the code talkers. And I feel so blessed that I’ve been able to contribute some small amount towards preserving that incredible history.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:49:20] I’ll make sure to add a link to that in the show notes for this. Thank you so much for sharing some of that information with us here today.

Judith Avila: [00:49:30] I love talking about those guys. They were amazing.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on reddit
Share on email
Go behind the podcast

Stay updated

with the weekly newsletter

Get notified about what’s new and what’s upcoming for the podcast.

Latest episode