John Kinsel Sr. was born in 1921 and grew up in the Navajo Nation in Lukachukai, Arizona. After he graduated high school, Kinsel enlisted in the Marine Corps Oct. 10, 1942, and completed boot camp at San Diego Recruit Depot. He then went to Camp Elliott in San Diego.
In an interview with the Veterans History Project, Kinsel recalled a day at Camp Elliott when a white man approached him and asked him in Navajo when they would have a sweat lodge. This man turned out to be Phillip Johnston, who came up with the idea to use the Navajo language as a military code in 1942. However, Johnston never actually made any words for the code—that responsibility was placed on Kinsel and other Navajo speakers.
In 1943, Kinsel deployed to New Zealand to complete an additional eight months of training. Afterwards, he went to Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands, under the 3rd Marine Division. From 1943 to 1945, Kinsel served in Iwo Jima, Guam and Bougainville Island. Although he never was on the front lines, Kinsel worked with division headquarters while on Bougainville Island. He carried out his duties as a Navajo code talker, coming up with codes and transcribing messages.
Kinsel also remembered the intense battles in Iwo Jima. On March 2, 1945, Kinsel and his group received word that the Japanese were going to bomb their location, but they didn’t listen to the warning. At 11:30 p.m., an explosion threw Kinsel and his equipment into a tree. A boulder fell on his leg, causing his shin to burst open and break. Kinsel received a Purple Heart on April 11, 1989.
After he left Iwo Jima, Kinsel served in Guam and Honolulu before returning to San Diego around Christmas in 1945. He honorably discharged on Jan. 1, 1946. Immediately after, Kinsel got a job as an instructional aide at a school in Chinle, Arizona. He remembered having to walk 36 miles each way on his own because transportation was almost nonexistent in the area.
In 2001, Kinsel received a Congressional Silver Medal for his service as a Navajo code talker. He turned 100 years old in January.
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Veterans History Project
This #VeteranOfTheDay profile was created with interviews submitted to the Veterans History Project. The project collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war Veterans so that future generations may hear directly from Veterans and better understand the realities of war. Find out more at http://www.loc.gov/vets/.
Editor: Elissa Tatum