Joe Kieyoomia (1925 – 1997) was a Navajo soldier in New Mexico’s 200th Coast Artillery unit and was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of the Philippines in 1942.
Initially tortured because his captors thought he was Japanese-American (and therefore a traitor), Joe Kieyoomia suffered months of beatings before the Japanese accepted his claim to Navajo ancestry.
He survived the Bataan Death March that killed thousands of starved U.S. soldiers. When the “Navajo Code” had the Japanese baffled, Kieyoomia was questioned and then tortured. Kieyoomia was not trained as a code talker and did not know about the code. Stripped naked and made to stand for hours in deep snow until he talked, Joe Kieyoomia’s feet froze to the ground. Finally allowed to return to his cell, a guard shoved him, causing the bottoms of his feet to tear. In an interview many years later he said, “Even if I knew about their code, I wouldn’t tell the Japanese.”
Kieyoomia survived the prison camps, the “Hell Ships” and the torture. After 3-1/2 years as a prisoner of war, he was liberated and returned to the land of his birth.
Joe Kieyoomia died in 1997.