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

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

John Kinsel, Sr.

John Kinsel during his oral history interview with Carol Fleming in 2003

Unit: 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division
Dates of Service: October 1942 - January 1946
Battles / Campaigns: Bougainville, Guam, Iwo Jima

"That was the best day of my life, when I saw my mom again." (Video interview, 1:05:44)

John Kinsel, Sr. was born in 1921 near Lukachukai, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation. He became accustomed to hardship from an early age - his father died while he was still an infant, and he later lost a younger brother. While still young, he was given responsibility for caring for his younger siblings, as well as the family livestock. His given Navajo name translates roughly as "leader and powerful speaker" - a fitting name given his later accomplishments as a Code Talker and educator. He went to boarding school in Fort Defiance for two years, and remembers his time there as marred by bullies, severe discipline, inadequate food, and struggling to learn English. He then moved to St. Michael Indian School, which he remembers much more fondly, and where he credits the religious ceremonies for helping him to learn English. He went to high school first in Fort Wingate, and then at St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, from where he graduated in 1942.

Kinsel was a member of the second cohort to be trained as Code Talkers, and he remembers working together with some of the “First Twenty-Nine” to develop additional code terms. Kinsel went through boot camp and Code Talker training with fellow VHP participant Joe Hosteen Kellwood, who remembered Kinsel as a tough and driven individual who was selected to assist the instructors and demanded that the other trainees meet his high professional standards. Kinsel was assigned to the 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, where he served together with Bill Toledo and his first stop overseas was for eight months of training in New Zealand, a time and country that he remembers fondly.

His first combat experience came during the Battle of Bougainville, where he recalls the intensity of jungle fighting but also the camaraderie of celebrating Thanksgiving with his fellow Marines (Video interview, 19:39). Next came the Battle of Guam, where Kinsel and the rest of the 3rd Marine Division faced heavy resistance on the beaches and throughout the island. Kinsel also remembers finding Guamanian civilians who had been murdered by Japanese soldiers (Video interview, 30:01). In February 1945, Kinsel took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima, where he and his regiment landed as reinforcements on D+5. He has vivid memories of Iwo Jima, including having to sprint across Motoyama Airfield No. 2 under intense fire. On his sixth day on the island, Kinsel was wounded by falling rock after the Japanese set off a large explosion inside a cave network. He had to wait on the beach for a day for medical evacuation, but once he was safely onboard a Navy hospital ship, a fellow Navajo who worked onboard brought him cake and ice cream (Video interview, 46:35).

After the war, Kinsel’s family at first had difficulty recognizing him, but one of the first things they did was to arrange a traditional Enemy Way healing ceremony for him (Video interview, 1:06:20). He found work as an instructional aide at a school in Chinle, a job that again called upon his usual resilience—he often had to walk more than 20 miles to get to work. Kinsel also built a log cabin home for himself and his family, a home that he was still living in as of 2019.

Oral History Interview

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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.