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Navajo Code Talkers: A Guide to First-Person Narratives in the Veterans History Project

Biography of Navajo Code Talker Joe Kellwood, together with a video recording of his oral history interview from the Veterans History Project archives.

Joe Hosteen Kellwood

Joe Hosteen Kellwood during his oral history interview with Carol Fleming in 2003

Unit: 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division
Dates of Service: September 1942 - October 1945
Battles / Campaigns: New Britain, Peleliu, Okinawa

"I was studying on my own at night, and by golly I passed the test—I passed the test and got my stripe." (Video interview, 29:21)

Joe Hosteen Kellwood was born in 1921 in Steamboat Canyon, Arizona, within the Navajo reservation. The son of a traditional medicine man, Kellwood attended boarding schools on Apache and Hopi reservations before finally attending Fort Wingate Vocational High School, where he began to learn the carpentry trade that would later become his profession. After high school, Kellwood worked as a civilian at the Army’s Fort Wingate Ordnance Depot until news stories coming back from Guadalcanal inspired him to join the Marine Corps.

After finishing boot camp in San Diego, Kellwood and the other Navajos in his training cohort were sent immediately to Camp Elliott and the Navajo Communication School. Kellwood was among the second group of Marines to be trained as Navajo Code Talkers, and he remembers the training as being intense and demanding. But he paid close attention to the instructors and studied on his own at night, rehearsing the more than 400 terms he was required to memorize, and passed all of his tests. Kellwood went through boot camp and Code Talker training with fellow VHP participant John Kinsel, whom Kellwood remembers as a tough and driven individual who was selected to assist the instructors. In March 1943, Kellwood shipped out to Australia where he joined up with Headquarters Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. His uncle had given him corn pollen to use for protection prayers before battle, and Kellwood mixed this with chewing gum to ensure it would not be confiscated.

After training in Australia and New Guinea, the 1st Marine Division attacked Cape Gloucester on the island of New Britain in December 1943. There, Kellwood endured the loss of two fellow Code Talkers, as well as malaria and the terror of nighttime Japanese bombing raids. After Cape Gloucester, Kellwood and the rest of the 1st Marine Division rested and refitted on the island of Pavuvu before invading Peleliu in September 1944. The Marines suffered their highest casualty rate of the war on Peleliu, and Kellwood retained vivid memories of the heartbreaking sight of dead and wounded Marines on the beach. After Peleliu, Kellwood also participated in the Battle of Okinawa from April through July 1945. On Okinawa, Kellwood again endured intense combat and survived a close call when a large piece of shrapnel landed next to him. A happier moment, however, came when fellow Code Talker William Cadman made mutton stew from a goat he found. In each battle he participated in, Kellwood remembers that the 5th Marines used the Navajo Code extensively to coordinate their operations.

After the war, Kellwood attended Arizona State College (later known as Arizona State University) using the GI Bill before embarking on a career in the construction field as a carpenter and tradesman. He later became heavily involved with the Navajo Code Talkers Association, with whom he would give presentations to the public, and he was renowned for his rendition of the Marines Hymn in the Navajo language. Joe Kellwood had five children, fifteen grandchildren, and was well known for his kindness, positive attitude, and sense of humor.

Joe Hosteen Kellwood passed away in September 2016 at the age of 95.

Oral History Interview

Folklife Today Blog

Folklife Today is a blog for people interested in folklore, folklife, and oral history. The blog features brief articles on folklife topics, highlighting the unparalleled collections of the Library of Congress, especially the American Folklife Center and the Veterans History Project.

Further Reading

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.