A Code Talker’s Story
Only 280 Marines from the Navajo tribe saw combat duty as “code talkers” during World War II. Samuel Tom Holiday was one of them.
Holiday addressed an enthusiastic crowd at the Pentagon Nov. 12, as part of the Department of the Army’s celebration of National American Indian Heritage Month.
Holiday was born in 1924 on a Navajo reservation in Monument Valley, Utah. He said he was 12 years old before he saw a “white man” for the first time.
“I never had an idea what white people looked like at the time,” he said. “I was told that white men took the children away from their parents.”
He and his brothers hid from government agents who came to send Navajo children to boarding schools. Holiday said he was ultimately caught and forced to attend a boarding school where he was not allowed to use the Navajo language.
“One of the hardest times I had was learning to talk the English. I would hide cookies in my pockets to pay the older boys to teach me English,” Holiday said. “Whenever they (the school’s instructors) found out I had talked Navajo, they made me scrub floor, scrub wall. I spent much of the first year scrubbing the wall.”
He attended the school until he was 18, when he was recruited into the Marine Corps.
“A Navajo and a white recruiter came. They told me if I volunteer, they’re going to take care of my mother. They told me they’d pay to buy me a house like the white man’s, with running water – which I never got,” Holiday said.
He said the Marines sent him to Camp Pendleton, in Oceanside, Calif., where he learned to speak the Navajo code, a codified form of his native language.
“They told us the reason we had to learn the Navajo code was that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I was told a lot of Japanese went to university in the U.S.,” Holiday said.
He said it took about two months to learn the code, in which Navajos substituted words from their language for military terms.
“This code did a whole lot of damage to the enemy,” Holiday said.
He said he was able to transmit a coded message that led to the destruction of an entire Japanese convoy sent to reinforce
Japanese forces on Saipan. “Two days later we got the message that the entire convoy was wiped out, by using the Navajo code. That’s how dangerous the Navajo code was,” Holiday said.
At another time, Holiday, a single rifleman and a single radio man were sent behind Japanese lines to locate an artillery unit on Iwo Jima that was shelling advancing U.S. forces.
“Finally, the rifleman gave me the message where the artillery was. I sent the message to Marine artillery. They shot a big shell there. The rifleman said it was right on target, so I said that to the Navajo – right on target,” Holiday said. He repeated “right on target” in the Navajo language for his crowd.
On two occasions, Holiday was “captured” by U.S. forces who thought he was Japanese. In one instance, he had disrobed to bathe in water accumulated in a shell hole when Marines who didn’t know him captured him. The Marines detained him until individuals from his own unit identified him. In second incident, he was “herded” toward a compound containing Japanese prisoners. He said he still bears a bayonet scar on his back from the second incident.
Holiday said he understood the behavior of both groups.
“They told us the Japanese were very sneaky, and they were coming in our lines dressed in our uniforms. I look Japanese with no clothes on,” he said.
He said he was detained until men he served with recognized him. “They said, ‘Hey, c’mere, Chief – they also called me ‘Geronimo’,” Holiday said.
Holiday felt remorse whenever he saw wounded and killed Japanese soldiers. “They looked like Navajo.”
Ultimately, his war experiences led him to a more peaceful calling. He became a Navajo medicine man.
“It gave me a lot of inspiration to become a medicine man. Today I help a lot of people,” Holiday said.
Among the people Holiday helped is Jeff Bailey, a member of the Black Bear Dancers, a troupe that sings and dances using songs representing several Native American cultures.
“I was working for a company that imported marble and granite. Three granite slabs, that weighed a total of more than 3,000 pounds, fell on me,” Bailey said.
He said the stone crushed his legs and his spine. “They told me I’d be lucky if I ever walked again. They said I’d never dance again. Well, here I am,” Bailey said, before beginning his performance of a Lakota Northern Traditional Dance.
Bailey said he was in the hospital, awaiting surgery on one of his knees, when Holiday visited him.
“He talked to me and prayed over me. The next day, the doctor came in and said, ‘Your knee doesn’t need surgery, it’s fine.
It’s broken, but it’s going to heel fine,” Bailey said. “They’re thinking about changing my Indian name to ‘Miracle Man’ because everyone says it was a miracle.”
Helena Begaii, Holiday’s daughter, said her father’s presentation focuses on the negative aspects of serving in World War II, because he is concerned about the troops currently in combat. She told some of the more humorous stories she has learned from him.
“My father served on Saipan, Tinian, Kwajalein Atoll, and Iwo Jima. On Saipan, all they had to eat was C-rations. My father grew up as a shepherd and was really good with a slingshot. They found some chickens and they had real chicken to eat – and a lot of people lined up,” Begaii said.
She said her father was also well known in his unit as a gambler, with great poker-playing skills.
Holiday said the code talkers were kept secret for many years after the war. The program remained a secret, still classified, until 1968. In 1981, then-president Ronald Reagan recognized the Navajo Code Talkers for their “dedicated service, unique achievement, patriotism, resourcefulness and courage.” Aug. 14, 1982, was proclaimed National Navajo Code Talkers Day.
Holiday, along with all the Navajo Code Talkers, received the Congressional Silver Medal, the highest civilian medal the U.S. can award, in April 2000.