One of the Last Navajo Code Talkers of World War Two Dies Aged 95

Code talkers at work, 1943. By USMC Archives from Quantico, USA / CC BY 2.0 / Wikipedia
Code talkers at work, 1943. By USMC Archives from Quantico, USA / CC BY 2.0 / Wikipedia

On the 6th September 2016, Joe Hosteen Kellwood, one of the last Navajo code talkers that served the US forces during WWII passed away at the Veterans’ Hospital in Phoenix. An indication of the respect afforded this old warrior was the fact that the Marines shared a video of Joe Kellwood singing the Marines’ Hymn in Navajo with the text “Honor the fallen. Yesterday, one of the last remaining Navajo code talkers passed away at 95 years old.”

Kellwood was born in Steamboat, Arizona and was educated at a military school on an Apache reservation. He went in the US Army in 1942 with the dream of joining the Marine Corps after reading of their battle at Guadalcanal. Instead of the Marines, he was placed in a secret program that harnessed the Navajo language as an unbreakable code. He was sent to Camp Elliott for training in Morse code, radio procedures and the Navajo codes.

“I studied on my own at night,” he said about the training. “You had to memorize all the words at the time, 211 words. They were long words. I spelled it. I learned.”

The Navajo code was used because the syntax of the Navajo language is almost impossible for a non-Navajo person to learn. Also, the language had no written form so the likelihood of the Axis powers having a native Navajo speaker were exceedingly slim. This program was so successful that by the end of the war, there were more than 300 code talkers, accompanying Marines in every theater of the Pacific War. The Japanese were never able to break the code and as this program was classified until 1968, all the members of the program were banned from talking about their experiences before then.

Once the program had been unbanned it was not long before Hollywood stepped in and released the motion picture called “Windtalkers,” starring Adam Beach and Nicolas Cage and directed by John Woo, in 2002.

Roy Kellwood, Joe’s brother also served during WWII in the US Army Air Forces in Europe. Joe and his brother Roy were very close and often swapped stories of their life in the war. They died within few days of each other and there will be one funeral for both brothers.

“They were Navajo warriors; that’s what everyone calls them. They defended the country, not just for the US, but for the Navajo nation and the Navajo people,” said Roy Kellwood Jr.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE