More than 400 Navajo Americans joined the military during World War II to transmit coded messages in their native language. The Japanese, even if they could break American codes, couldn't decipher the Navajo tongue.
They were called Navajo Code Talkers, and one of the last few remaining code talkers – Joe Hosteen Kellwood – died Aug. 5. He was 95.
Honor the Fallen
Yesterday, one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers passed away at 95 years old. pic.twitter.com/0og0yxKnDf
— U.S. Marines (@USMC) September 7, 2016
Kellwood joined the Marine Corps at 21 after he learned about their exploits during the Battle of Guadalcanal. He was sent to the 1st Marine Division as a Code Talker. But like most other servicemembers at the time, didn't even know the program existed – it was still Top Secret.
Kellwood leads a group in the Pledge of Allegiance at a veteran's ceremony at the Heard Museum in 2014.
In a 1999 interview with the Arizona Republic's Betty Reid, he said he told his sister "Da'ahijigaagoo deya," or, "I'm going to war." He was one of 540 Navajo men that would become Marines during the war and one of around 400 that would become Code Talkers. Kellwood saw combat on Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa.
The Native American Marines were trained to transmit messages on the battlefields of the Pacific using Morse Code, radios, and Navajo codes. What's unique about the Navajo language is that it uses syntax and tonal qualities that are nearly impossible for a non-Navajo to learn. The language also had no written form, and many of its letters and sounds did not have equivalents in other languages.
The Code Talkers created messages by first translating Navajo words into English, then using the first letter of each English word to decipher the meaning.
A Navajo Code Talker relays a message on a field radio. (Marine Corps photo)
The security the Navajo provided U.S. communications was later acknowledged as being critical to winning the war. But often Native American servicemembers like Kellwood were discriminated against at home and discouraged from speaking Navajo.
"I was never scared during battles because I told Mama Water to take care of me," Kellwood told the Arizona Republic. "We had to feel like we were bigger than the enemy in battle."
Joe Kellwood rides in the 2014 Phoenix Veterans Day Parade. (Photo by Lucas Carter)
The Japanese never broke the code, but the program was never officially acknowledged until 1968, when the U.S. government declassified the program. Their unique service to the war effort was first recognized by President Ronald Reagan in 1982.
According to his obituary, Kellwood's awards include the Congressional Silver Medal; a Presidential Unit Citation; Combat Action Ribbon; a Naval Unit Commendation; Good Conduct; the American Campaign Medal; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and (of course) the WWII Victory Medal.
There are now fewer than 20 Navajo Code Talkers left.
President Reagan declared Navajo Code Talkers' Day to be August 14th, which coincides with V-J Day, 1945 – the day Japan surrendered to the Allies and World War II officially ended.