Navajo Code Talker Joe Kellwood Walks On at 95
Joe Hosteen Kellwood, an elite member of the Navajo Nation code talkers and the U.S. Marine Corps who helped the U.S. and allied forces defeat Japan during World War II with an unbreakable code by using their traditional language, walked on September 5 in Phoenix. He was 95.
Kellwood passed in the VA Medical Center after suffering from complications of several illnesses, including congestive heart failure, his daughter Connie Kellwood Pitt said.
Kellwood, who grew up in Hóyee or Steamboat Canyon, Arizona, a small community about an hour west of Window Rock, the Navajo Nation’s capital, was 21 when he drove to Albuquerque to enlist in 1942.
Although he’d been spanked at the age of 10 for speaking his Native language when attending a U.S. Military-run school at Ft. Apache on the White River Reservation, Kellwood was one of the 420 Navajos who learned Morse code and how to operate a radio in Navajo at Camp Elliott in San Diego. When Kellwood joined the 1st Marine Division, he didn’t know he was being placed in the code talkers unit because it was a classified program.
"You had to memorize all the words at the time, 211 words. A lot of those, they got long words,” said Kellwood of the secret code during a 2003 interview with the Veterans History Project, adding that he didn’t know what some of the words, like saboteur or reconnaissance, meant. He studied at night so he could pass a written test.
Kellwood, who was part of the second wave of code talkers sent overseas, told the Veterans History Project that he helped create new letters and words for the code to keep the Japanese from breaking it, using Navajo animal names, such as black bird or jackrabbit.
Though her father had close calls during the war, including having pieces of a plane fall into his foxhole, his daughter said he didn’t talk much about the war.
According to an interview with the Arizona Republic, Kellwood combined gum and corn pollen his uncle had given him to pray to the Holy People and spit in the ocean to help him return home safely.
"I was never scared during battles because I told Mama Water to take care of me," Kellwood told the Republic in 1999. "We had to feel like we were bigger than the enemy in battle. I had my prayer and my chewing gum."
When WWII ended, following the advice of his father who said he should go live in the city with white people since he had a yearning to learn, Kellwood became a carpenter. While staying at a hotel in Phoenix, he fell in love with the blue-eyed daughter of the hotel owner. Andrena “Andy” Peterson and Kellwood were married for 57 years and had five children, among them was Paul, who became a Marine and fought in Vietnam. Kellwood helped build homes in Sun City and raised all six of his children in Sunnyslope.
Though she knew her father was a Marine, Connie Kellwood Pitt said she never knew about his position as a code talker until she had to write an essay in the seventh grade about what her parents were doing during WWII. At the time, he told her she couldn’t repeat his mission. And the information remained private a few years before 1982 when then-President Ronald Reagan declared August 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day.
After the Navajo Code Talkers began to get recognition, Kellwood Pitt remembers her father being acknowledged in her childhood neighborhood. “(When word got out) he felt good about it and he could finally talk about it … Everyone in Sunnyslope had so much respect for my dad that they would salute him,” she said.
Kellwood was awarded the Congressional Silver Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Combat Action Ribbon, a Naval Unit Commendation, a Good Conduct medal, an American Campaign Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and a WWII Victory Medal, according to his obituary.
Always a proud Marine, Kellwood continued to sing the Marine Corps Hymn in Navajo, even in his later years. And he also made sure to instill his military training in his children.
“He still let us know that if you’re living a good life you don’t have to tell people that. Your actions will speak louder than anything you say to them,” Kellwood Pitt said. “He could have walked up to anybody and said, ‘I’m a Marine.’ But he wanted people to know, number one, what the Marines had done and then what the Navajo had done.”
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