A combination of memoir and ethnography study examining an unusual, inspiring aspect of the World War II Pacific campaign.
Holiday is one of the last living Navajo “code talkers,” a group of Native American Marines recruited to develop an unbreakable code derived from their unique tribal language. As co-author McPherson (History/Utah State Univ., Blanding; Navajo Land, Navajo Culture: The Utah Experience in the Twentieth Century, 2002, etc.) observes, “The Navajo code talker experience was as much mental and spiritual as it was physical [due to]…the emphasis Navajo culture placed on religion.” One strength of their collaboration is a clear portrait of the daily challenges faced by the Code Talkers in both training and battle. Holiday’s engaging musings on his hardscrabble (yet tradition-inflected) childhood and the young Navajo males' surreal entry into war alternate with McPherson’s explications of Native American history, symbolism and ritual. The scholar argues that Holiday’s experiences connected these ancient cultural markers to the Marines’ intense “island hopping” campaign against the Japanese. Holiday seems serene in recalling participation in brutal battles at Saipan and Iwo Jima, though he notes that the Code Talkers were frequently at risk of being mistaken for the Japanese foe. Following the war, he overcame “nightmares of the enemy standing over me smiling” by having an “Enemy Way” ceremony performed for him. Still, the Code Talkers found postwar life challenging, having been sworn to secrecy. Since each chapter contains an overview of relevant Navajo symbolism, followed by part of Holiday’s recollection of his improbable life story and McPherson’s lengthy interpretation of the young soldier’s experiences, the overall narrative feels rather unwieldy. However, many readers will find the fusion of military and cultural histories enjoyable and fascinating.
The combination of Holiday’s recollections and McPherson’s academic expertise creates a valuable addition to the canon of specific WWII narratives.