The Native American Grant School Association conference Dec. 13 to
15 at the Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas included a continental breakfast session Dec. 14 where a former Navajo Code Talker noted his experience at Camp Pendleton.
Sam Holiday, who served in the Fourth Marine Division from 1943 to 1945, mentioned his initial United States Marine Corps time during his short presentation.
Navajo was not a written language and was difficult for an adult to learn. It is also an inflective language, so a word may have different meanings based on the tone of voice. During World War II the Navajo Code Talkers transmitted information about enemy fire, troop movement, and medical needs. Although the existence of the Navajo Code Talkers was not declassified until 1968, no records indicate that any Navajo message was ever deciphered.
The Navajo Code Talkers had a directory of more than 400 terms. They were assigned to one of six Marine divisions; their uniform’s red cap designates the Marine Corps while their jewelry represents their Dine heritage. (Most tribal names are the tribes’ own words for “the people”; because the Dine were unapproachable their tribal name was provided by a neighboring tribe whose word for “the enemy” was Navajo.)
Holiday was born in the Monument Valley; his exact date of birth is unknown but he is believed to have been born in 1924. Holiday was scared of white men and did not see one until he was 12. He hurt his knee while herding sheep and was recovering in a hospital, which enabled him to be “captured” and sent to an English-language boarding school in Tuba City, Ariz. Because the boarding school punished students for speaking Navajo, Holiday snuck out cookies and cakes from the cafeteria to give to other students as bribes to help him learn English. He spent five years at the boarding school before attending a vocational school in Utah.
In 1943 Holiday received a letter from the Marine Corps telling him to report to Phoenix, and after his examination he took a train to San Diego. Because life on the Navajo reservation was so harsh, Holiday didn’t consider boot camp to be difficult but noted that other Marines were crying at night because of the conditions.
Holiday was transferred to Camp Pendleton, where he met other Navajos in the service. A Navajo instructor informed him that they were there to learn the code of the Navajo. Holiday was assigned to the Fourth Marine Division’s 25th Regiment H&S Company and initially saw action on the island of Kwajalein. He suffered hearing damage at Saipan when a bomb exploded near him and was also in danger from his fellow Marines, who twice mistook him for a Japanese soldier before Marines from his own company verified that he was an American Indian. Holiday also served on Roi-Namur, Tinian, the Marshall Islands, and Iwo Jima. During the first 48 hours of the Iwo Jima invasion, Navajo radio units sent and received more than 800 messages.
After his discharge, Holiday became a Navajo police officer and also worked at the Monument Valley Tribal Park and the Peabody Coal Company. He married his wife, Lupita, in 1954, and they now have eight children, 35 grandchildren, and 24 great-grandchildren. Holiday currently lives in Kayenta, Ariz., whose Burger King houses a Navajo Code Talkers museum.