Meet Samuel Holiday, whose traditional Navajo upbringing shaped his work as a code talker and changed the course of World War II.
When Samuel Holiday was forced to attend a government boarding school for Native American children, he was forbidden to speak his Navajo language and cut off from the traditional ceremonies and stories that had defined his childhood. Only a decade later, however, that same government was embroiled in World War II, and Holiday’s knowledge of the Navajo language and culture turned out to be the secret weapon needed to save the US war effort.
Born in 1924 along the Utah-Arizona border in Monument Valley, Samuel Holiday was raised within traditional Navajo beliefs and practices. His worldview was shaped by stories of The Hero Twins – Monster Slayer and Born for Water – who journeyed far and wide to fight evil and make the world safe for humans. These ancient stories are fundamental to Navajo culture and ideals for young manhood. Holiday’s connection to these stories, his language, his culture, his religion, somehow survived the strict rules and active discouragement of boarding school.
When Holiday joined the US Marine Corps in 1943 to fight in World War II, the Corps actually needed him to speak his language in a top-secret communications program that used Navajo language for military codes. The Marines hoped that, unlike English codes – which the Japanese kept cracking – codes in Navajo would be impossible to decipher.
Working in pairs, Holiday and the other code talkers used stories about The Hero Twins and other figures from Navajo tradition to communicate tactical information on the battlefield. Crouched in craters on the frontline, Holiday operated the radio to coordinate troop movements, call for artillery, and transmit crucial information back to command. The language and legends of his heritage formed the basis of these coded messages, but also gave Holiday the personal strength and perspective he needed to make sense of the horrific war and his role in it.
The Navajo code talkers were vital in helping the United States secure the Pacific Island outposts of Tinian, Saipan, and Iwo Jima – which turned the tide of the war. Holiday recalls in his memoir, “I do not know how many Japanese I killed with my words – or how many Marines I saved – but I did my job.”
Jessica Bowen for Utah Humanities © 2018
See Samuel Holiday and Robert S. McPherson, Under the Eagle: Samuel Holiday: Navajo Codetalker, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013; Samuel Holiday, interview, July 25, 2004, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.