by Jim Johnson
In 1942, acting on an idea proposed to the US Marine Corps by Mr Philip Johnston, four Navajos demonstrated to a group of Marine staff officers how they were able to translate combat messages into Navajo tribal dialect, radio that message to a second Navajo who then translated it back into perfect English. At the time, Navajo, was an unwritten language and completely unintelligible to anyone except another Navajo. Johnston realized the use by the Marine Corps of Navajo as a code language in voice (radio and wire) transmission could guarantee communications security.
In May of 1942 as a result of the demonstration, Marine Corps Major General Clayton P. Vogel approved the recruitment of Navajos to enter Marine training and to serve as communicators. These Navajo would become known as “Code Talkers,” highly classified. Even the existence of the project including the name “Code Talkers” remained under strictest military secrecy for 23 years after World War II.
My research also shows that WWII is not the first time Native American languages were used to relay messages. The use of Indian languages as a military code dates at least back to WWI, when Choctaw soldiers created a code to send messages that could not be understood by their German enemies. And while the Navajos were providing a vital service to the Marine Corps in the Pacific, “the Comanche signal Corps” was baffling Hitler’s German military intelligence.
On November 10, 2010, I had the opportunity to interview Samuel Tom Holiday, an 86 year old Marine Corps veteran of World War II and a Navajo Code Talker. It was a very moving experience as Mr. Holiday and his daughter Helena Begaii attended the US Marine Corps birthday celebration in Dodge City.
I served in the Air Force with a Navajo who became a good friend, so to prepare for the interview I brushed up a little on the few smatterings of Navajo I had been taught. Introduced to Mr. Holiday and Ms. Begaii, I said, “Yaateeh” which is the default Navajo greeting. The response was a smile and a stream of Navajo that left me completely disarmed.
Here I should note that the Navajo refer to themselves as the Dine, or “the people.” The Dine consists of many different clans. A Navajo, when identifying themselves to another Navajo, is careful to identify their clan relationships so I knew that as a “white man” I would need to ask for that information.
Mr. Holiday and his daughter gladly obliged explaining he was born to the Todich’ii nii Clan (Bitter Water) and born for the Bit ahnii Clan (Leaf Clan). His maternal grandparents are Tsin-nah-ji-nee Clan (Tree With Black Streaks) and his paternal grandparents are Tle-zi-tlani Clan (Many Goats). His parents were Billy Holiday and Bessie Yellow and he was born in 1924 in a traditional Navajo hut called a “hogan” near Monument Valley, Utah. Today he lives in Kayenta, Arizona.
After WWII, Mr. Holiday carefully kept his promise of secrecy given to the Marine Corp and the US Government. This is not easy for a Navajo. The Dine have a tradition that when a warrior returns from war he must go through a special cleansing ceremony. In order to keep his part in the war secret, he waited until the project was declassified in 1968 and then had his cleansing ceremony in 1969. He did not even tell his children until then.
When Holiday was young, he and his siblings used to hide from government agents who came to send Navajo children to boarding schools. He was told that white men took children away from their parents. He was 12 years old before he saw his first white man. One day while herding sheep he hurt his knee and during his recovery at the hospital he was “caught” and sent to Tuba City Boarding School. Navajo children were forbidden to speak their native language at the schools and Holiday found learning English difficult. He would give the older boys cookies in exchange for English lessons. He said he scrubbed a lot of floors and walls as punishment until he got it down.
Holiday was 18 years old when the US Marine Corp recuited him and at 19 years of age he reported to Phoenix, AZ where he took some examinations and was sent to San Diego for boot camp. After boot camp he went to Camp Pendleton, CA where he was to be part of the fledgling super secret Code Talkers project.
He was then assigned to the Fourth Marine Division, 25th Regiment, H & S Company from 1943 to 1945. He served through the island hopping campaign on Roi-Namur, Tinian, Iwo Jima, the Marshal Islands and Saipan.
While on Saipan, he transmitted a coded message about a Japanese convoy. Two days later he learned that the entire convoy was wiped out thanks to his unbreakable Navajo language coded message.
Once on Iwo Jima he and a single rifleman were sent behind Japanese lines to locate an artillery unit that was shelling advancing US troops. He was able to send a message to US forces who then put a big shell right on the artillery position.
Most US Marines had never seen a Navajo before and on two occasions, Sam was mistaken for a Japanese soldier. On one occasion he had disrobed to bathe in water accumulated in a shell hole. A group of Marines found him and “captured” him. The Marines detained him until individuals from his unit identified him. In a separate incident he was rather roughly herded toward a compound of Japanese prisoners by his “captors.” As a result, he still has a bayonet scar on his back.
The mis-identification problem cut both ways. He felt sad when he saw wounded or dead Japanese soldiers. They looked very much like Navajos to him.
Once the war was over, and while living with the Code Talker secret, Holiday went back to the Navajo Tribal Ways and the Native American Church (NAC). He became a tribal medicine man and now follows the NAC way of healing. In the post war years Holiday also worked for a while as a Navajo Tribal Police Officer at the Monument Valley Tribal Park and finally for the Peabody Coal Company until he retired.
During his time as a police officer he married Lupita Mae Issac and they had eight children. Today he has thirty-five grandchildren and twenty-four great-grandchildren. He and his wife always took children into their home and even adopted a few of them. Sadly, Lupita had become ill and passed away a few weeks previous to my interview with Holiday. Sam put his grief aside because, as he put it, he honored her memory by continuing to talk to people about the Code Talkers.
Samuel Tom Holiday has published a book about the work of the Code Talkers titled “Navajo Weapon”. For $20 plus S & H you can purchase a copy of his book. The address is Samuel T Holiday, P.O. Box 233, Kayenta, Arizona 86033, email to HolidayST@frontiernet.net or phone 928-697-3159.
The Navajo Code Talkers were officially recognized in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan and August 14, 1982 was proclaimed National Navajo Code Talkers Day. In April of 2000, Holiday, along with all the Navajo Code Talkers received the Congressional Silver Medal, the highest civilian medal the US awards.
In 2002, the Navajo Code Talkers were memorialized in the movie “Wind Talkers” starring Nicholas Cage and directed by John Woo. It is a bit heavy on violence (probably PG rated) but otherwise quite a nice tribute to the Navajo, Comanche and Choctaw Code Talkers to whom we owe so much. More about the Code Talkers can be found online at: Sam Holiday’s page: www.traditionsinthemaking.com/DadsPage
and the offical US Navy page: