Sun Lakes veteran recalls Pearl Harbor horrors - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Sun Lakes veteran recalls Pearl Harbor horrors

November 5th, 2020 SanTan Sun News
Sun Lakes veteran recalls Pearl Harbor horrors

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Jack Holder claims he’s never really considered himself much of a hero.
The World War II veteran and Sun Lakes resident, who will turn 99 next month, is quick to recall specific dates and figures of battles he witnessed during his stint in the Navy. He can vividly describe the mayhem of watching young men drown in the Pacific seas as he himself dodged enemy fire.
Yet, Holder still maintains a humble attitude when he discusses his wartime experiences and said that while his life may seem extraordinary, but he still thinks of himself as a simple farm boy from Texas.
As Veteran’s Day nears Wednesday, Holder is preparing to celebrate the achievements of his fellow servicemen the same way he does every year – though he admits that the commemorations will feel notably different.
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed how public community events can be held this year. Many cities have opted to cancel their Veterans Day parades, while others are choosing to stream events online.
Veterans Day is typically a special one for Holder, so he hopes to find a way to acknowledge it in a pandemic-friendly manner – as he has other commemorations this year.
In September, Holder participated in a digital ceremony recognizing the 75th anniversary marking the end of World War II. He had originally planned to fly to Hawaii and visit Pearl Harbor but fears of COVID-19 forced officials to put the event only online.
The move was a disappointment, Holder said, because his memories of his time there are still fresh in his mind. He only started retelling his war stories publicly a few years ago, keeping his memories private for decades.
That choice to remain silent for so long may stem from the small-town humility Holder said gained being raised in a culture where most families struggled just to survive and didn’t brag much about themselves.
His medals honor him as a heroic airman, yet he’s fast to say that he was only one of many young men who wanted to serve their country as the world was engulfed in war.
“I’m proud of the small part that I played,” he said.
Holder was born about 30 miles outside of Dallas on Dec. 13, 1921.
His family moved to the small community of Proffitt, which is now listed as a “ghost town” with nothing left there except an old church and cemetery.
Holder spent his childhood working on his father’s 360-acre cotton farm. His family spent long hours each day working the fields and sweating underneath the hot Texas sun.
This type of laborious life wasn’t destined for him, Holder said, as he dreamed of getting out of Texas and seeing as much of the world he could.
So, he searched for the first opportunity that could get him away from his family’s farm.
“It’s all work and no money,” he said, “I learned pretty quick that I wasn’t going to let farming consume my life.”
Like his father, who had traveled across Europe during World War I, Holder said he longed for a similar opportunity and got as World War II loomed.
In 1940, Holder convinced his mother to sign enlistment papers shortly after he graduated high school, so he joined the Navy and was dispatched to San Diego for boot camp.
Life in the Navy was wonderful and exciting, Holder recalled, despite grueling work and a strict regimen.
“It turns a boy into a man,” he said.
After boot camp, Holder was sent to the military’s naval base in Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt relocated the fleet of ships from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in 1940, around the time diplomatic tensions between Japan and the United States were starting to rise.
By the end of 1941, negotiations for peace had soured between the two nations and a Japanese attack almost seemed imminent.
On that fateful morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Holder remembered assembling for the daily roll call when he heard a terrible explosion.
“The first bomb that fell in Pearl Harbor fell about 100 yards from me,” he recalled.
He and his crew members ran outside and saw several Japanese planes flying over the harbor. One shipmate noticed an empty construction ditch nearby so he and Holder jumped inside to take cover from aerial bombardments.
The shipmates clung to each other and prayed for the attack to end swiftly. Holder recalled an enemy plane zeroing in on their ditch and opening fire with a machine gun.
A pile of dirt surrounding the ditch protected Holder and his friends. The Navy men eventually found the courage to climb out of the ditch and inspect their surroundings.
“When I came out, I saw devastation I’ll never forget,” he said.
Several battleships, including the U.S.S. Arizona, had been obliterated by Japanese bombs and hundreds of servicemen were desperately trying to swim to safety.
“I’d seen guys swimming through burning water and oil,” Holder said. “A lot of them died in the water, some of them died when they reached the beach.”
The hours following the attack comprised a mixture of fear, confusion and monotony for Holder and his shipmates.
They were ordered to hunker down in gun pits and keep watch on the skies. As the men fended off thirsty mosquitos, Holder tried to ignore the smells emanating from his dirty uniform; their spare clothes were given to doctors to use as bandages for the wounded.
In his 2014 autobiography, “Fear, Adrenaline and Excitement,” Holder went into detail about how they patiently sat and waited for the sound of plane engines to barrel over their heads again.
“For three days we listened for that sound, scared as hell the Japanese were going to come back and finish what they’d started,” he wrote.
In the end, more than 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor and another 1,170 were wounded.
Holder managed to survive the incident unscathed. In fact, he said he survived the rest of the war without any major injuries.
There were a few close calls, Holder said, yet luck always seemed to be on his side.
“Bullets came so close sometimes I had debris showered on me but I never got hit,” he said.
Holder was later sent to Europe and conducted several aircraft missions flying over the English Channel. He was part of five squadrons that flew more than 6,000 missions over the sea patrolling for enemy submarines — during which time they managed to sink at least eight.
“I managed to get one of them,” Holder remarked.
Holder was discharged in 1948 and re-entered civilian life by flying planes for a charter airline in California. After his wife convinced Holder to stop flying planes, he moved to Arizona and retired in 1991.
Though his retirement years have been full of relaxing days on the golf course, Holder’s still had his share of misfortune in recent years.
In 2016, he fell victim to a scam that had con artists swindling $43,000 out of his retirement account. Community members later raised more than $65,000 to supplement Holder’s losses.
He survived a terrible bout of pneumonia a couple years ago that drained Holder’s energy.
His health still isn’t 100 percent, he said, but he is still feeling well enough to look forward to a time when it will be safe to hold Veteran’s Day events again.
Although he belongs to the “Greatest Generation,” Holder hopes today’s young people won’t ever have to witness the horrors of war that he has seen.
As he wrote in his autobiography, Holder noted how many members of his generation didn’t get to live long lives. If millennials don’t have to make the same sacrifice, then he thinks that’s a sign of progress.
“By the end of my war, more than half of those friends were gone and most of them before they reached their 25th birthday,” Holder wrote. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”