THe Navajo Language: a Blessing in Disguise Back                                                                                                           Home                                                                                                        Next

Interview Transcripts

Selections from Interview with Joe Kellwood on December 28, 2004:

...In 1939, somewhere around there, we get the report from Ernie Pyle; he was in England. And my teacher, she let us know what’s going on, what country fall, where Hitler is heading and all those things. And between time, my Mother passed away in 1937 and my father passed away in 1939. I had one sister that never went to school, so she don’t speak English and she need help ‘cause there a horse and someone needs to haul water and supplies. And in those days, I think I drop out of school one time and try to support her.

You were in High school at that time?

Yes, Wingate Vocational High School.  I drop out of High School and at that time some Japs start going around Gallup. That’s where I was working when I enlisted. Wingate Ordinance Depot. I used to work with the bombs, two ton, we used to push those on the conveyor and unload them in the storage area. I did pretty good there. I was in good shape as a person, with good muscle. I was easy going and everything was easy for me o learn. So, I turned up pretty fast on that job and was making good money.

(Into the Military)

And then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And you should have seen the big long line at the places where they recruit into the service. Everybody wanted to join the service. I didn’t go at that time, when they bombed Pearl Harbor, but stayed on at the job until I turned twenty-one. I found more information on what outfit to join. I took the one that took Guadalcanal, the First Marine Division. I followed that one. When I was working I would tell them, “that ‘s the outfit I’m gonna join.” I sure did. I made it to that one. They had good experience. They were a high-class outfit. They know the Japs. In early days, it was not just war. The Japanese were very hateful people.  Not anymore, but in those days, they don’t just kill you, they cut you up. Anything they can do to you, they do it. You go back and find your dead buddy. He’ll be hanging on a tree, with his tongue in his mouth, you know what I mean. So that’s the way I know. I joined after they hit Guadalcanal. I joined in October first and second in Phoenix. I had joined in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Being that Arizona is my home, they sent me down here. That’s 1942, when I enlist here.

Training Camp

From here I went to San Diego.  Let me go back, I enlisted in Albuquerque, they give you two weeks to put your (things in order) and return to where you enlisted. You go there ready to go. All prepared to go into the service. In my case, they sent me down here (Phoenix), We stopped in Gallup, New Mexico, in the evening. Here comes all these Navajos that I went to school with and a lot of others that I don’t know. I ask where they’re going and they say, “San Diego, Marine Corps.” So there’s a group of us that come from NM to Needles. It’s one of those places, I know there’s Williams and there’s Needles. I have to change the train there to go to Phoenix and there rest went on through L.A. and on to San Diego. I was coming down to Wickenburg at 10:00 o’clock in the morning. My instructions were, when you get off the train go a block east and a block north. I stay overnight here and they have a place for me to stay and they furnish me food. The next day in the evening, we left here and stopped some place for a freight train to go by. We were near Yuma. They had the double engine, that they put onto the one we had. So we went through the tunnels. We stopped in old Mexico. Service people are on the side, all guarding the train, so no one jumps off. From there we made it to San Diego.

That’s how I joined the service
You asked me why I joined the Marines. My sister was kind of getting scary. Because the way these enemies were doing things, torture. I just let her know that I was going to get training to meet the enemy. And that made her cry.

photograph of Joe Kellwood

Joe H. Kellwood
1st Marine Division

photograph by Kenji Kawano

Selections from Interview with Keith Morrison Little on January 23, 2005:

Tell me what you were doing before you enlisted with the Marines.
Well, I was in the U.S. Marine Corps from May 1943 to November 1945. I was in school before enlisting. I was in the 10th grade. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, I felt that I had to enlist, I had to do something. It was a feeling of retaliation. I think that was the underlying reason I enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Can you tell me about a specific story of your service during the war?
I don’t have a real interesting story about the war, but here is one of the crazy ones. This happened in either February or March 1945, on an island called Iwo Jima. We had been at the front lines for over a week and we were all tired and we didn’t have anything to eat. We had rations, but we didn’t have anything hot. Then one day they pulled us to the rear. They told us we would rest there and recoup ourselves from the battle – we had hot chow coming! Well the hot chow came, and the people that brought the meals, they hollered, “Come and get it!”  A bunch of guys went right ahead of us. Me and another guy, we kind of dragged our feet, took our time. Just about the time we were getting there, we heard a whistling noise coming, so we all dove for cover wherever we could find a place. The shell that came, it went right into the hot chow we were supposed to get, and busted it all up! A lot of the guys ahead of me got wounded that day. We were really upset with the Japanese that fired that shell. We called them every crazy name there is – “Go to hell!” we said – for shooting up our hot chow, the first hot chow we had in more than a week. We didn’t get to have it that day. Then we didn’t get any hot chow for another week.
How did you get involved with the Navajo Code project?
First, when I enlisted, I went to San Diego for boot camp. Just about the time I was getting done with boot camp training, my drill instructor came up to me one day and said, “Are you an American Indian?” I told him, “Yes, sir.” Then he said, “Are you a Navajo?” And I said, “Yes, sir.” Then he made a remark that the Marine Corps needed Navajos because they made good scouts. My platoon mates heard everything he said to me. I got a good ribbing out of that. They said that I was going to get my butt shot off for being eligible for going scouting (scouts cross the front line and go ahead to look around), because I could get shot at all the time. I didn’t understand that he was saying that Navajos would make good communicators.
So I went with a bunch of Navajos. We loaded up onto a truck and they hauled us up to a place called Camp Pendleton. We got there about noontime. There was nobody in the barracks, just us new arrivals. When the company came back it was about 4:30 in the afternoon, and we went out to see what they looked like. There were about 200 Navajos there, and we were stymied, wondering what all those Navajos were doing here together. They still wouldn’t tell us what we were doing there.
The next day they told us exactly what we were going to do. We were going to study the Navajo code and memorize it. They told us, “When you go on leave, when you go home to your family, don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.” It was top military secret. It was bewilderment for all of us. You wanted to know why, but they wouldn’t have any of it. They wouldn’t let us ask questions. “Just do what you are told”, they said. When we were in the classroom we were drilled and drilled. No writing it down. It was all memorized. No pencils, no  pieces of paper would go out of the classroom. At the end of the class you had to hand in every pencil and piece of paper.
When did you learn to speak English?
I had a hard time learning English. When I was growing up on the reservation around the Tuba City area, there was no church. But I learned to say my prayers in Navajo.  We were restricted from talking Navajo with each other at school. In class they taught you to write English and recognize letters and words, and then you’d try to talk. It was really hard to communicate with another student because if you really wanted to tell him something or tell her something, you didn’t know how to do it in English. If you spoke out in Navajo, even secretly, there were people watching you all the time and tattling on you, You would get whipped or punished for it. That’s how the Christian mission was. The mission was to get the savages civilized and fit them in with American society.
Where did you go after you learned the Code?
I finished my Code Talker school in November, shipped out in January, and ended up in Pearl Harbor. Then they told us we were going to some islands in a string, one was Roy (?) and the other was Bemor (?).  We came back to Maui to rest and train some more,  then boarded ship again in May. Then we went to Saipan. On June 15, 1944 we landed on Saipan. We were there about 3 weeks. When the island was secured then we could take it easy.
I was a radio man for a battalion commander. I followed that commander around everywhere. I served him – he could talk on my radio if he wanted to. Back at the command post I also manned the division radio, using the code. The code was not regular Navajo language, but military language. A code talker, he’s got it all in his head. He gets a message in plain written English. As he transmits it, he is encoding it as he is talking. As the guy on the other end receives it, he hears the code. He translates it, and then he writes it down in plain English. Then the written note in English goes to its destination, for whatever execution is needed.
Later we loaded up and went to Pinyen(?). We completed that project and came back to Maui. We recouped there, and that division was brought back up to strength. When we were strong we always looked for something new to do. With the code talkers we were taken to division headquarters on Maui and studied a “refreshed” code – sometimes  there were new words developed during the process of battle. The code was getting streamlined a little further. They were always trying to improve the speed and accuracy of the message, in such a way that the Navajo Code really outdid the conventional military code.
Sometime in December we pulled out again, went to Pearl Harbor, got on ship and stopped at Guam. None of us got off the boat there. After that we found out that we were going to Iwo Jima. In February 1945 we landed on Iwo Jima.  According to the information that we had, we were not going to spend more than two weeks on that island. But right off we realized that the Japanese were defending the island with everything they had. We were being shelled as we were coming in. We spent from February 19 to March 26 on that island. Then we came back to Maui again so we could regroup and train through the summer. We were ready to leave again, I guess, when the word came that the Japanese had surrendered.  Everything was done.
What was your homecoming like?
The anticipation of going home was really overwhelming for everybody. I came back to the U.S. in November and was discharged later that month. I went back home and visited around, visited my friends and family, and went back to school. I graduated from high school in Oklahoma, and went for more schooling, and finally got a school teacher job. I taught Indian kids at an Indian school. When I left the reservation, the Navajo people were resisting sending their kids to school, because of how they were being treated, so there was a lot of teenage kids who were illiterate. The Bureau of Indian Affairs decided education was a priority, so they sent these people to a five-year program, and I was teaching in that program. I had kids there that never spoke a word of English. They learned English and learned something about a trade there. Later I left there and became a logging manager for a Navajo tribe. I am retired now.
How did it feel not to be able to talk about your work with the Navajo Code?
We were told that the code was a top military secret. When we left the USMC we were told we were not to tell anybody what we had done, because the Navajo Code was still classified. We could not tell our kids what we had done in the Marines. In 1968 it finally was declassified, and the 4th Marine Division, at their annual reunion in Chicago, had the Code Talkers come to the reunion (I had a job and at that time I could not attend).
Later on in the year the Code Talkers got together in Window Rock and got medallions. Then we could finally work on what we had done, all the stories you hear now came from that time we were together. We finally got recognized by the President of the U.S., so that the guys who started the code, the initial guys recruited in 1942, they got gold congressional medals of honor. The others like myself, we knew nothing about what we were doing, we just wanted to fight the Japanese. We got recognized on November 11, 2001. We got silver medals.
What made you want to defend the U.S. in the war, when you hadn’t been treated very well by American people?
I call it “brainwashing” in the schools – they were trying to civilize us to be ordinary American citizens, so being patriotic was a main priority. But in that Christian school we must have had the right teacher (laughter!), because they said we were really the first people in America! They wanted to convert the savage Indians to make them civil, fit them into American society. They had their work cut out for them! They were going to teach these kids not to be Indians.
A lot of people say, “Why did you have to go fight for the U.S. when they treated you so bad?” Well, they might have mistreated my ancestors, our people, imprisoned them, but they did let us come back to our land, our Mother. America was our land. Supposing the Japanese came to the mainland? They could have come to our land. Patriotism, being an American Indian, I guess that’s it. This land is where we live, where our animals are, where our people are.
Are your children and grandchildren able to speak Navajo in school?
For me, it’s number one that my children and grandchildren are Navajos. They know what they are, and they also need to learn English as the primary language of the U.S. We teach them Navajo at home.
I would like it if you would observe Code Talker Day on August 14. Tell stories about Code Talkers on that day, or maybe have a Code Talker come to your area on that day. I’m always available.

photograph of Keith M. Little

Keith M. Little
Todich'ii'nii Clan
4th Marine Division

photograph by Kenji Kawano

Selections from Interview with Samuel ("Jesse") Smith PFC  by Susan Hansen on January 8, 2005:

What do you think about the treatment of Navajo's at Missionary Schools?

The treatment was good, as was learning the English language 

Do you think the American government treated Navajo's wrongly during history?

Yes, Very 

When did you learn to speak English?

I learned to speak English when I was 5 years old at Day School. 

Did you like learning English?

I had to in order to live as others. 

Where did you learn to speak Navajo?

I learned Navajo at birth, spoke at home while growing up 

When did you join the Marines?

May 3, 1943 

Why did you volunteer for WWII?

I wanted to get even with the Japanese for sinking the USS Arizona and bombing of Pearl Harbor 

What were you doing when you joined the marines?

Going to school 

Did you learn Morse code and semaphore?


Was it confusing thinking in both Navajo and English at the same time?

No, I had been doing it most of my life. 

Do you have a specific memory of one of your experiences?


After the war, were you treated any differently than before?


What did you do after the War?

I went back to school to finish the 12th grade. 

Do you feel that returning veterans became leaders in the Navajo community?

Yes, I have. 

When did you join the Code Talker Association?

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