On Monday, Joe Hosteen Kellwood died. He was a Marine Corps vet who served in the Pacific during World War 2. That might sound like enough for him to be remembered, but there is one more thing that made him stand out. He was born Navajo, and therein lies the real story.
In World War Two, code-breaking was as vital a weapon as any carried on the battlefield. Much has been written and filmed about the famous British and Polish efforts to break the Germans’ Enigma code. The Battle of Midway in the Pacific turned on the US knowing where the Japanese fleet would be, and knowing this allowed our heavily outnumbered forces to sink four of the six large aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
But the Japanese were no slouches at breaking our codes. The Marine Corps were casting about for some coding system that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to break. They stumbled onto an interesting fact – the Navajo language has no written form. It is purely verbal, passed on through oral lessons. The Marines latched onto this, and created a code utilising Navajo words such as “tortoise” for tank, and so forth. This code was used throughout the Pacific on the last two years of the war, and was never broken by the Japanese. Joe Kellwood was one of these men, called “Code Talkers”, who used their knowledge of the Navajo language to relay orders and information across the unsecured radio links, coordinating troop movements, artillery and air strikes, and all the details required to ensure American victory over the Japanese throughout the Pacific. (For a very good retelling of the Code Talker story, watch the movie “Windtalkers” with Nicholas Cage and Adam Beach. The combat scenes are a bit overdone, and some of the facts are played fast and loose, but the movie presents an excellent introduction to the Navajo code system for those who are unfamiliar with it.)
Joe’s older brother died just 3 days before. He, too, served the US as an airman in the US Army Air Forces in Europe. While both of them are heroes whose lives deserve to be remembered and cherished, the unique contribution of Joe Kellwood to the success of our Pacific Theatre campaigns should be known by all. In the great pool of irony that is war, the Code Talkers showed that an ancient traditional language could outdo the most modern weapons in assuring victory.