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The Story Behind a Navajo Code Talker

Samuel T. Holiday
Samuel T. Holiday, Navajo Code Talker, at Thursday's lecture./Credit: Missouri State University Twitter

(Navajo language being spoke)

The Navajo language has never been written down. It’s complex, carrying meaning in every syllable. One word could mean four different things depending on emphasis. That’s why the Americans turned to the Navajos during the war, when all of their codes had been broken.

Samuel T. Holiday was one of 420 code talkers, ranked in the fourth Marine division. Stationed on the front lines among the many Islands of Hawaii, Holiday’s job was to send messages for ammunition, food and strategic plans using the Navajo language. He was 18.

“I’m here to fight the Japanese,” Holiday said.

During the war, Holiday was mistaken for the enemy twice by his own side and taken as a Japanese prisoner until his unit was able to find him and vouch for him. William Meadows, MSU professor of sociology who helped organize Thursday’s event, said this was often the case.

“In Europe you were fine if you had skin color, it wasn’t an issue. If you had any kind of a tan or ethnic look to you in the Pacific, it was a liability,” Meadows said.

Even as a code talker, Holiday faced war terrors any veteran would know. He shared stories about late nights near dying friends, nearly drowning and coming face to face with a tank. His daughter, Helena Begaii, said there was one moment, years later at the Twin Towers that made it all worth it.

“This Japanese guy, he was a young guy, I would say he was about 14 or 15, he came up and he goes ‘thank you, thank you sir. Because of you, I have my father, my grandfather and my great grandfather. Because of you, I am here. Thank you.’ And he gave my dad a hug,” Begaii said.

Until 1968, Navajo code talkers were unable to discuss anything about their duty in case they needed to be brought back. In 1981, August 14th was recognized as National Navajo Code Talkers day. And finally, in 2000, Holiday and all of the Navajo code talkers were awarded the Congressional Silver Medal.

Holiday will be at Missouri State University’s 9th annual Powwow this weekend for a meet and greet.

For KSMU News, I'm Anna Thomas.