Joe Hosteen Kellwood, a Navajo Code Talker from World War II, died Monday in Phoenix at the age of 95.
"Kellwood served with distinction in the 1st Marine Division as a Navajo Code Talker, ultimately helping lead the Allied forces to victory in WWII," Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said in a news release. "Today, as Arizonans celebrate the life of this amazing man, let us pray for his family, his friends, and the Navajo Nation. And let us never forget the countless contributions that code talkers have made to our state and our country."
A spokesman for the Navajo Nation confirmed Kellwood's passing.
In Navajo and in English, people sent condolences over social media to Kellwood's family.
Ahe'hee, Mr. Joe Kellwood. Thank you, Marine.
Rest in Peace, Brave Warrior. Thank you for your service. My condolences to the family and to the Navajo Nation.
Oh Ya'at'ééh dóó'. So Sad and Sorry...Your Uncle is now made his journey to be with family in a world different with the Holy People as he is now.
Messages trickled in on social-media sites dedicated to the Navajo Code Talkers across the nation.
Photos of Kellwood were posted on the Facebook page for the Greatest Generations Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to veterans recording the legacies of veterans.
In one photo, the young soldier with a crew cut is kneeling in the grass, holding a rifle. In a photo taken decades later, Kellwood's graying hair is tucked under the signature red cap that Navajo Code Talkers wore.
More than 400 Navajos were recruited as Code Talkers. They transmitted battle messages in their native, unwritten language, creating a code Japanese soldiers couldn't crack.
In a 1999 interview with Arizona Republic reporter Betty Reid, Kellwood remembered leaving Phoenix to join the Marines.
He was 78 at the time of the interview, but 21 when he joined the Marines in 1942. He told his sister, Da'ahijigaagoo deya, or, "I'm going to war," according to the 1999 interview.
He was trained at the Navajo Talkers’ School at Camp Elliott in San Diego. In the interview, he remembered a moment when his sacred rituals conflicted with military rules. He had boarded a transport ship headed for Melbourne, Australia, where he would join the 1st Marine Division, 5th Marine Regiment.
Kellwood had corn pollen, a gift from his uncle, who told him in Navajo to use it during his journey. His uncle called the Pacific Ocean a mother figure for their people. In the Republic
interview, Kellwood said his uncle had told him to stand by the ocean, place corn pollen in his mouth, on his head, into the air, and pray to the Holy People.
Rather than ask his ranking officers for permission, Kellwood mixed a piece of gum with corn pollen. He chewed it into a ball and spat it into the ocean. The ritual gave him confidence he would return safely.
"I was never scared during battles because I told Mama Water to take care of me," Kellwood said in the 1999 Republic
interview. "We had to feel like we were bigger than the enemy in battle. I had my prayer and my chewing gum."
Dianna M. Náñez writes for the Arizona Republic.