Navajo Code Talker Samuel Holiday dies in Ivins at age 94

Samuel Tom Holiday, a Navajo Code Talker who served in World War II, died Monday in Ivins at the age of 94. In this file photo, he is shown greeting guests at his 93rd birthday celebration, St. George, Utah, June 2, 2017 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE  — Samuel Tom Holiday, who was among the last surviving Navajo Code Talkers, died Monday night at the Southern Utah Veterans Home in Ivins. He was 94.

He was surrounded by family members, many of whom were able to travel to Ivins thanks to donations to a GoFundMe page set up as Holiday’s health began to deteriorate.

Holiday’s death was confirmed to St. George News by William G. Fortune, who accompanied members of the Utah Dixie Detachment 1270 Marine Corps League to visit Holiday on Monday.

Samuel Holiday at the Lion’s Veterans of Foreign Wars building, St. George, Utah, May 31, 2014 | File photo courtesy of Preston Holiday, St. George News

Upon learning of Holiday’s imminent death, Stephen Handy, chaplain for the Detachment, “hastily assembled about 11 Marines in their ceremonial best to render a final salute as he lay in bed surrounded by family and friends at the Southern Utah Veterans Home,” Fortune wrote.

“To accommodate the family, the Marines went into his room two at a time and rendered a final salute. They unfolded and covered Samuel with a special ‘Quilt of Valor.’

“Having served on Iwo Jima, Samuel knew something of valor. Admiral Chester Nimitz said of the Marines on Iwo Jima ‘Uncommon valor was a common virtue.'”

Holiday was one of about 400 Navajos to serve with the U.S. Marines as Code Talkers. As fluent speakers of Navajo and English, they were instrumental in communicating messages between troops in a language indecipherable by Japanese combatants.

Navajo is grammatically complex, and at the time of the war, it was not yet a written language and was considered by military officials to be indecipherable.

Holiday and his fellow code talkers fought on the front lines where they sent coded messages back and forth about enemy fire, troop movement and the need for medical help, according to a biography about Holiday on the Native American Project website.

Although the term “Code Talkers” is most closely associated with Navajos, members of other tribes were instrumental to the program as well.

The GoFundMe page said Holiday’s health took a turn for the worse just after he celebrated his 94th birthday and traveled back to home to Kayenta, Arizona, for a special ceremony. It added:

He loves Mountain Dew and his snacks. He loved hunting out in Bear Ears. He loves watching sports. He loves his children and their children’s children. And he loves his country and proud to have fought in the Pacific. He kept the biggest secret from his wife and children that he used his native language in WW2 until it was declassified in 1968. I, myself, has had the opportunity to travel with my grandfather to Tokyo for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball and we were even more honored to travel back to Iwo Jima on the 70th anniversary. Grandpa Sam has always wanted to spread the history of the Navajo Code Talkers and always loved educating anyone who wanted to hear.

Family and community members sing “Happy Birthday” to Samuel Holiday for his 93rd birthday at Georgefest, St. George, Utah, June 2, 2017 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

A St. George News article from June 2014 tells Holiday’s story on the occasion of a surprise party for his 90th birthday held at the St. George Lions Veterans of Foreign Wars building:

From 1943-1945 Holiday served in combat with the Fourth Marine Division during World War II. Throughout this time he served duties on the island of Roi Namur, Kwajalien, Tinian, Saipan and Iwo Jima.

Military historians note that during the first 48 hours of the invasions at Iwo Jima more than 800 coded messages were sent and received by Navajo radio units with 100 percent accuracy. The Navajo language was not recorded and almost impossible to learn. It served as a code the Japanese failed to crack; a language that Holiday was told as a child not to speak because Navajo had nothing to offer.

In an excerpt from his autobiography “Under the Eagle,” published in 2013, Holiday describes a memory from boarding school:

“There was also to be no more Navajo religion and traditional ceremonies. ‘Learning English will help you in your future’, she said. ‘the Navajo way will not help you; it has nothing so you must speak English.’”

Upon being discharged, Holiday was told not to unveil his duties as a Code Talker, but as he got older he wanted a full historical recount to be told. He collaborated with historian Robert S. McPherson and it took five years to finish and is the only book that recounts the entire life of a Code Talker not just the war.

Dressed in his Code Talker uniform – a red hat depicting the United States Marine Corps, turquoise jewelry representing the Navajo sacred stone, a gold shirt symbolizing corn pollen, with a patch on the arm denoting the Fourth Marine division, light-colored pants signifying mother earth and shoes the color of abalone which is also a sacred stone – Holiday shared his childhood and experiences as a Code Talker.

The Marine Corps Dixie Utah color guard at Lion’s Veterans of Foreign Wars building, honors Samuel Holiday for his 90th birthday, St. George, Utah, May 31, 2014 | File photo by Samantha Tommer, St. George News

He grew up near Monument Valley by a mountain known as Eagle Rock. His family,  members of the Todich’inii or the Bitter Water Clan, herded sheep and lived according to Navajo traditions. Holiday remembers being told when he was 4 years old about his great-grandmother being taken as a prisoner during the “long walk.”

“They rounded up all the Navajo – old ones, little ones – herded them up like sheep kept them for four years as prisoners, a lot them were Navajo,” Holiday said. “That’s the reason I was really scared of white people, I didn’t even know what they looked like.”

Holiday’s mother, Betsy Yellow, played a significant role in his early education. She taught him about herbal medicine, nature’s remedies and survival properties of desert plants.

“We didn’t know about white man’s medicine,” he said. “If you get thirsty out in the desert there are plants that hold water that you can suck the juice from. This is survival. All these teachings really came in handy during the war.”

It wasn’t until he was 12 years old that he encountered a white person; after an extended stay at the hospital for a knee injury, he was enrolled in boarding school.

Holiday enlisted in the Marines when he was 18, just before he completed coursework for a vocation school in Provo. On the date of Pearl Harbor, he was at school playing basketball, somebody came to the door and yelled “the Japanese are attacking America,” he said.

During basic training in California, the Marines would participate in 25-mile marches where they were only allowed to carry one canteen of water per person. After two or three days, several of the Marines would have to be picked up by a truck. This was a time that the Navajos showed their adeptness to survival because of a shared understanding of nature.

“There were plants we knew we could get juice from. All the Navajos made it to the end of the march,” Holiday said. “And you wonder why the Marines would say ‘those damn super Indians’?”

Samuel Holiday during the “35th Annual Paiute Restoration Gathering” at the Paiute Tribal Center, Cedar City, Utah, June 13, 2015 | File photo by Dave Amodt, St. George News

During the war, Holiday – whose grandfather was a medicine man – wore a traditional Navajo pouch around his neck, with four sacred stones and yellow corn pollen wrapped in a leather binding believed to provide protection and to calm fears. Many Navajo Marines wore these pouches or carried eagle feathers on their person.

During the years overseas, Holiday was mistaken twice for a Japanese soldier and suffered hearing loss in his left ear after walking past an exploding mortar shell.

After enlisting 39 Code Talkers, recruiters realized the significance of the Navajo language as a code. They promised Holiday that after serving he would receive an added bonus, that his mother would be taken care of, that she would get running water, but it didn’t happen. Instead he received around $300, orders to not talk about the code and returned to the still existing segregated America.

“I started yelling: ‘No, I’m not going back. I came here to fight a war not to stay in sick bay,’” he said. “I couldn’t hear, there was noise all around, shots going off and I couldn’t hear.”

“After I was discharged I came back to Flagstaff (Arizona) and was trying to get a room at a hotel and they told me ‘it’s full, it’s all full.’ The next day, I went back to the main town, I said: ‘Let’s go eat.’ They said: “No no no you can’t eat this food.’ That happened to me twice. It didn’t feel right. I fought next to black man, white man, Mexican and came back to segregation.”

After returning from the Marines, Holiday became a Navajo police officer and married Lupita Mae Isaac in 1954. Together they had eight children, 33 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson.

“He never made a big deal about himself as a Code Talker,” his daughter, Helena Begaii, said. “He didn’t see himself that way. My dad feels like this is his land, his people’s land, with the four sacred mountains and the importance of taking care of it. He was fighting for his country. The best thanks are anonymous. Sometimes we are in a restaurant and we are waiting for our ticket and then we find out someone paid for it.”

“I never saw my dad as a Navajo Code Talker. He was always just daddy.”

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  • Vic June 12, 2018 at 7:27 am

    Thank You Sir for your service. Semper Fi!

    • RVer June 12, 2018 at 10:59 am

      Indeed. His honorable service can never be repaid, and its full measure never appreciated enough.

  • No Filter June 12, 2018 at 7:59 am

    I met this man once at our 4th of July celebration in town. He had some amazing stories, may he rest in peace.

    • RadRabbit June 14, 2018 at 5:08 pm

      I always enjoyed talking to veterans like this sadly these WW2 guys are becoming more scarce by the day, every one of them a hero.

  • Carpe Diem June 12, 2018 at 8:14 am

    Thank you Sam! Wish I had met you.

  • r2d2 June 12, 2018 at 8:56 pm

    For a life that made a difference, thank you.

  • Mean Momma June 12, 2018 at 11:05 pm

    Rest In Peace. A true American hero.

  • Anon June 13, 2018 at 8:22 am

    I am always emotional when it comes to the lives of our veterans. Thank you, sir, for giving your time and talents to our country. Thank you for sharing your culture.

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