‘I wanted to be a Marine’: At home with 107-year-old code talker John Kinsel Sr.

‘I wanted to be a Marine’: At home with 107-year-old code talker John Kinsel Sr.

melanie sisson
special for the times

lekkacheegai – It’s a Sunday morning in early December. Winter has begun.

Let’s go back in time. Imagine you are a teenager or early 20s. You’re up before sunrise because your strict boarding school requires church attendance, chores, both, or work outside of school. If you’re not out and about, you’re probably caring for leftovers from your family’s livestock or working on the farm in some other way. Even if you can read the daily newspaper or listen to the radio broadcast the next day, you may have a hard time because English is not your first language. How could they have known about an epic catastrophe 3,100 miles away?

'I wanted to be a Marine': At home with 107-year-old code talker John Kinsel Sr.

Courtesy | U.S. Marine Corps
1943 H&S Company, 9th Marine Signal Company, 3rd Marine Division. Navajo Code Talker John Kinsel Sr., bottom row, fifth from left.

These were the exact circumstances of a 107-year-old retired US Marine corporal. John Kinsel Sr. on December 7, 1941, when the Empire of Japan attacked the defenseless US Pacific Fleet and the Republic of Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. On the day they would “live in infamy,” to borrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Dec. 8 declaration of war, he realized how dramatically their lives would soon change. and hundreds of other Navajo men could hardly have predicted it.

In a recent conversation with Kinsel in the log cabin home he built, the Marine Corps preacher spoke about his childhood, his years of service in the South Pacific, and his time as a husband, father, and indispensable Brings life back to life. — Her 100-year-old member of the Lokache Guy community.

Kinsel was Kinłichíi’nii and was born for Tábąąhá. His maternal grandfather is Nakai Dineye and his paternal grandfather is Bitanyi.

To get a glimpse into someone’s life, understand that memories from 80 to 100 years ago are evoked in both Diné Bizad and English. Know that dates of birth were not recorded, guessed or fabricated ages were used as indicators of school dates, and no address records were kept during the migration era. Nevertheless, despite being deaf due to missing teeth and having difficulty saying certain words, this centenarian still needs his son to repeat them out loud in both languages. Even when there is, they prefer questions to be directed at them and maintain their independence.

Growing up in K’aabizhiistł’ah/K’aabizhii

Born in Cove, Arizona in 1917, John Kinsel never knew his biological father, who died when he was young.

“Bullying, harsh discipline and inadequate food,” Kinsel recalls of Fort Defiance boarding school. At the age of six, he and his younger brother went to this school without any knowledge of English. He was given the name John Williams at school, but later regained his grandfather’s surname, Harvey. Shortly after he left the school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “the entire Fort Defiance Boarding School was converted into a trachoma school in 1927,” according to the 2010 American Historical and Architectural Survey. In order to contain rampant eye diseases and tuberculosis, boarding schools were being converted into infectious wards and hospitals.

The death of John Kinsel’s brother “at school” comes up twice. Trachoma can cause blindness, and if untreated, tuberculosis can lead to death. It was generally believed that a lack of natural resistance made Native Americans more susceptible to disease. It was definitely not a boarding school situation. Ron Kinsel (72) will be the interpreter. His father was always saddened by his brother’s death. This loss left Kinsel as his mother’s only son.

'I wanted to be a Marine': At home with 107-year-old code talker John Kinsel Sr.

Courtesy | Kinsel Family Archives
Navajo Code Talker John Kinsel Sr. rides Yo-Yo, a rodeo horse given to him by his cousin.

His remarried mother, who had left home when he was young, returned and told him, “Roy Kinsel is your stepfather.” Her new husband was a man from Twin Lakes, New Mexico, with adult children. Young John had no choice but to adopt the Kinsel name.

The Kinsell family moved from Cobh to Lukačkai, where John’s influential grandfather established a homestead and raised a herd of 1,000 sheep, goats and horses. A century later, just a few miles from the red sandstone cliffs of the northwest tributary of the Chashgai Mountains, where he was first taken by his mother to live, Lukachkay (meaning “patch of white reeds”) is home to Kinsel. It continues to exist. This is where he and his late wife Mary Elizabeth (née Shorty) raised their children, and where the war hero lives today in the care of his devoted son.

Kinsel asked his grandfather to attend St. Michael’s Indian School, where he graduated from the eighth grade in 1937. Kinsel, 21, said in his alumni newsletter following his tour and presentation on Code Talker: It felt like home. ”

He fled on foot from Fort Wingate Boarding School along Route 66. He ended up at “St. Catharines Industrial Boarding School” with no plans and simply intending to go to Santa Fe. Kate,” as he called her, graduated on May 26, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor was still seven months away. A devout Catholic and a parishioner at his Catholic church and mission, St. Isabel Nabajo in Lukačkai, he believes that prayers and songs at school helped him improve his English vocabulary.

Read the full story in the April 25 issue of the Navajo Times.

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