Holiday, who was born to a medicine woman in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, was unsure of his exact birthday, but family members assigned him the date of June 2, 1924, based on the weather and season at the time.
Holiday was 19 when he went through Marine Corps boot camp in 1943. He joined a group of Native Americans who used their native language, which had complex grammar and was unfamiliar to the rest of the world, to develop a communication code for the U.S. military that enemies could not decipher.
Twenty-nine Navajos were recruited to launch the Code Talkers program, but there were more than 400 by the end of the war.
During the war, Holiday served with the 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, joining operations in Saipan, Iwo Jima, Tinian, Marshall Island and other parts of the Pacific Theater.
An exploded mortar injured one of his ears, which he said left him with some hearing loss. He would later tell his family that, despite that, he always felt safe during battle, protected by a pouch worn around his neck that held sacred stones and yellow corn pollen.
Holiday said in a recent interview that on two occasions he was mistaken for a Japanese solider by his fellow Americans, with some of the men who knew him jumping in to defend him. That, however, did not cause his dedication to the cause to waver, he said.
After the war, Holiday returned to the Navajo Reservation, working as a police officer and ranger before starting his own heavy equipment company.
He married Lupita Mae Isaac in 1954, and they had seven daughters and one son.
For decades, Holiday’s participation with the Code Talkers was a secret. The operation wasn’t declassified until 1968, and Holiday didn’t share with family members much about the details until the 1980s.
In 1982, Holiday and the rest of the Code Talkers were given a Certificate of Recognition by then-President Ronald Reagan. Twelve years later, President Bill Clinton awarded Congressional Gold Medals to the 29 original Code Talkers.
Holiday and the others received Congressional Silver Medals, which Holiday sometimes wore along with his others, including a Purple Heart.
Holiday became an advocate for sharing the Code Talker history, telling his own personal story and educating others about the role Navajos played in the war.
At veterans events, he would wear his medals and don other symbols of his background: turquoise jewelry for the Diné, or Navajo; a red Marine Corps cap; and earth-colored clothing picked to celebrate Navajo heritage.
He also shared his experiences in Under the Eagle: Samuel Holiday, Navajo Code Talker, a book he co-wrote with Robert S. McPherson. It was published in 2013 by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Holiday would visit schools in the St. George area to tell them about the war and his experiences. When he visited Riverside Elementary School last year, he held the children’s attention as he recounted a particularly fearsome battle. The fifth-graders’ nervousness as he told them how he ducked into a foxhole to avoid the spray of bullets changed to laughter as the tale ended with Holiday’s comrade yelling, “I’m hit!” — only to then see that a frog had jumped on his back.
“This doesn’t happen very often where you get to experience and see and hear the person who was actually there instead of just talking about it,” teacher Mala Shakespear said at the time.
We honor you, Samuel Tom Holiday.