During the bloody, month-long battle for Iwo Jima in 1945, a young U.S. Marine was sent behind Japanese lines to spot troop movements, artillery and gather intelligence.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the confusion and frustration the enemy Japanese soldiers had as they tried listening in when Samuel T. Holiday began sending radio messages of his intelligence to his 4th Marine Division. What he sent back to headquarters might as well have been an alien language to the Japanese.
And, in part, it was. Holiday was a young Navajo Indian and a Marine Code Talker for the 4th Marine Division, 25th Regiment, one of three Marine divisions on the strategic volcanic island, half way between the Mariana Islands and Japan in World War II.
The Marine landing began Feb. 19, 1945, and lasted for more than a month. Some 6,000 Marines died on the rocky island, along with about 90 percent of the 20,000 Japanese soldiers defending the rock scab.
Military historians have written that a major role in the Marine Corps success on the island was due to Navajo Code Talkers like Holiday. The Navajo tongue was an unwritten language. If you were not Navajo, you would not have a clue as to what was being said.
The Japanese on the island listening in to Holiday and other Navajo Code Talkers were completely befuddled, magisterially confounded.
Holiday, born in Monument Valley, Utah, was 12 years old before he encountered the first white person. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943 when he was 19 years old.
Holiday, who lives today in Kayenta, Ariz., saw action on the Island of Roi-Namur, Tinian, Iwo Jima, Marshall Islands and Saipan. His first real combat came on the island of Kwajalien. On Saipan, Holiday was almost killed twice, once on the landing and the second when a bomb exploded near him.
During the landing, Holiday was thrown from the landing craft as it capsized about 50 yards off shore. He was dragged under by his backpack, which had thrown off, but had caught on his canteen. Later, ashore, a bomb exploded in the black sand near him. The explosion damaged his hearing, which is still bad today.
In a recent phone interview, his wife, Lupita, had to listen and then translate for the old Code Talker. In that phone interview from his home, Holiday said he had been honored to be in the war, was proud of his accomplishments with the Code Talkers, which he said “was super secret.” He also said he was very proud of the Congressional Silver Medal.
On his website at http://www.samuelholiday.com/ Holiday explains the use of the Navajo language for the Code Talkers:
“Unlike most languages, Navajo was unwritten and virtually impossible for an adult to learn. Every syllable carries meaning, and sometimes a single word can have four different meanings depending upon intonation. Dialects vary from region to region and even within Navajo clans. In the thick of battle, they would send practically nonstop messages for 15 - 18 hours, passing vital information about enemy fire, troop movement and the need for medical help. Military historians note that during the first 48 hours of the invasions of Iwo Jima, Navajo radio units sent and received more than 800 messages with 100 percent accuracy.
“My language became a secret weapon,” says Holiday. “I don’t know how many Japanese were killed because of my language. Watching the Japanese suffer at the hands of the Americans was sad. These Japanese were just young guys, and they looked like Navajos,” Sam says. He continues, “The code was so secret, when I was discharged, I was told to never talk about it, not even to my family.”
The entire Navajo Code project was highly classified, and military historians have found no records to indicate that any message traffic in the Navajo language was ever deciphered.
“Yes,” Holiday says, the Navajo Code Talkers did “help win the war. It was so important,” said his wife in translating for her husband.
Holiday is scheduled to be the featured speaker at 1 p.m. at this weekend’s Native American Festival at the Blount County Public Library.
On Saturday, April 25, the library will bring in Native American dancers, drummers, flutists, and guitarists, singers, storytellers and crafts and arts exhibitors in the daylong festival, which will include about 100 Native American performers from various tribes.
In addition, the celebration will focus on contributions made by military service personnel from all ethnic groups and backgrounds.
Holiday also plans to meet with interested veterans from any war and all military service groups, including active and inactive duty personnel, at 10:30 a.m. At 11:15 a.m. Holiday and other military veterans are expected to take part in an appreciation procession of veterans.
Holiday was one of 280 Navajo Marine Code Talkers who saw combat duty in World War II. The first Navajo Code Talkers became known as the Original 29. They were the ones who massaged the Navajo language to come up with the secret code that was used by Navajo radiomen like Holiday to pass information during combat.
The Navajo Code Talker program remained a secret after the war and was not declassified until 1968. It was another 14 years before the Navajo Code Talkers were recognized by the United States Government.
Most of the Navajo Code Talkers were stationed in the Pacific during World War II. In 2000, then President George W. Bush awarded Holiday and all Code Talkers the Congressional Silver Medal. Prior to that in 1981, President Ronald Reagan honored Holiday and all Navajo code talkers for their “dedicated service, unique achievement, patriotism, resourcefulness and courage.” August 14, 1982, was proclaimed National Navajo Code Talkers Day.
At the library festival, events will also include social dances with public participation. During the dances, those attending the festival will have the opportunity to join in to dance the two-step, friendship dance, broom dance and potato dance.
More detailed information about these dances can be found at the web site, www.powwows.com.
The festival will provide a cooperative venue for individuals and several groups, co-sponsored by the Friends of the Blount County Public Library and the Civic Arts Center.
Charlie Staley and the Office of Veterans Affairs for Blount County are coordinating military groups.
Maj. Doug Fowler of the Air National Guard Education Center and MSgt. Tommy Trivette, Administrative Assistant to the Base Commander, are coordinating communications to Air National Guard members.
Members of the Friends of the Library and Native American individuals will be volunteering to assist with the festival.
A sound system for the festival has been donated by Rocky Branch Community Club and the Downtown Maryville Farmers’ Market, with Jerry Kincannon and Mark Stonecipher volunteering as sound technicians.
Friends of the Library members and some Native Americans attending the festival will volunteer to assist with the logistics of conducting the festival.
An Indian lodge will also be erected on the library’s front lawn. In addition, authentic Native American arts and crafts will also be for sale.
Because all festival events will be outdoors, audience members are requested to bring lawn chairs. In the case of rain, all programs will be held indoors.
For more information, contact the Blount County Public Library, 508 N. Cusick St. Maryville, 37804; 865-982-0981, Web site: www.blountlibrary.org
Writer Fred Brown may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org