The Right Stuff

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: People Issue: September 2015
Group Free

PHM0915PFPPL01aPearl Harbor survivor and pilot Jack Holder chronicles his harrowing experiences in a new book.

 Jack Holder had just reported for duty when he heard the sounds outside his hangar: a scream streaking across the sky like a banshee, then the boom of a bomb. He and his squadron bolted outside. The neighboring hangar erupted in flames. A plane flashing the rising sun insignia dove toward the men. They ran and jumped into a ditch. Pressed against the dirt, Holder prayed, “God, don’t let me die in this ditch,” as he saw the pilot’s toothy grin and machine gun fire rattled in his ears.

The bullets missed him by three feet. It wouldn’t be the last time in his life that he narrowly escaped being killed by gunfire.

Holder is one of an estimated 2,000 remaining survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack during World War II – a war whose last veteran will probably die by the 2030s, according to the Veterans Administration. But Holder is not merely someone who has survived. He is a survivor.

Now a lean and sharp 93, the Sun Lakes resident is promoting his new WWII memoir, Adrenaline, Excitement and Fear (Farabee Publishing, 2015), traveling to speaking engagements, and embarking on a new career. For this thrill-seeking pilot, it has always been full speed ahead.

The Gunter, Texas, native grew up amid the grinding, Depression-era poverty that has forged many a sturdy character. The shack his farmer father built for the family
to live in had no running water, electricity or phone. The outhouse was equipped with a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue, and it wasn’t for reading. “I soon realized that plowing the fields and picking cotton and feeding hogs and chickens was not going to be my life,” he recalls in a moseying drawl that belies what he calls his “attraction to thrills and danger.”

At 16, he bought a $5 Harley-Davidson and revved around the country with a friend, picking fruit to earn money along the way. On one ride, they met a Navy man whose tales of glory convinced Holder to become a Navy pilot. The fact that his father suffered debilitating health problems from gas attacks in WWI and his uncle plummeted to his death from a plane during an air show didn’t deter him.

In 1940, at age 18, Holder was on a train to San Diego for boot camp. That’s when the pain hit him. He was rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy – without anesthesia. For three weeks he lay in bed, pain and loneliness gnawing at his insides. Barely healed, he entered boot camp and was hurtled into a regimen of marching, boxing, swimming and drill sergeant intimidation – “Most of you smell like cow shit!”

Two months later he was on a Navy tanker, barreling into a storm at 15 knots. “The entire company was petrified,” he writes in his book. “When the bow of the ship came up you literally were pinned to the bunk. When the bow dipped you would momentarily be floating in thin air.”

But then he arrived in paradise. Soon he’d be starting aviation school. His new commander instantly took a shine to him – and so did the Honolulu harlots. (Holder spent many hours waiting for his favorite redhead in a block-long line of Navy men.) Yep, things were definitely looking up in Pearl Harbor.

The morning of December 7, 1941, came as a total shock. “We were completely ill-prepared,” Holder says. “We had no idea. Our equipment, especially aircraft equipment, in comparison with the Japanese was like a Model A Ford against a Cadillac.”

In the wake of the blitz, the Navy wasn’t sure if the Japanese would attack again. Holder and two men patrolled for three days and nights in a sand bag machine gun pit, drenched by rain, eaten by mosquitoes, and smothered by the stench of anxious sweat. “Every noise we heard we said, ‘It has to be them returning,’” he recalls with preternatural calm.  

Holder went on to fly a PBY seaplane in numerous Pacific battles including Midway and the Guadalcanal Campaign. During the Battle of Midway, his squadron lost radio contact after patrolling for 13 hours. They were forced to land in the middle of the ocean. Holder strapped himself to the plane’s antennae and spent the night on a wing, thinking, “You know, maybe [the farm] wasn’t all that bad.”

PHM0915PFPPL02A few transfers later, he was sent to England, and flew 56 missions over the English Channel. He shot down a German plane, bombed a submarine, zigzagged through “a hail of anti-aircraft machine gun fire” and frequently returned in a plane perforated with bullets. Nazi Germany collapsed in April 1945, and imperial Japan followed suit the following September.

After nearly eight years, Holder honorably departed the Navy with a slew of awards including two Distinguished Flying Crosses and six Air Medals. But the adventure wasn’t over. He embarked on a series of jobs in Texas, California, Hawaii, England and Arizona: aviation mechanic, pilot, oil company CEO, golf pro. Once, when Holder was co-pilot, his plane nosedived into a runway and skidded 975 feet like a flaming bullet. He escaped through a window, sustaining burns and several fractured vertebrae.

Surprisingly, Holder never told his friends he was a WWII veteran. “I didn’t think they’d be interested,” he says, sitting in his bright Sun Lakes home. Then five years ago, he met Ruth Calabro, the love of his life. She encouraged him to tell his story.

He’s also traveled around the planet with Pearl Harbor survivors, talking to crowds and classrooms, shaking the hands of former Texas governor Rick Perry and, somewhat more awkwardly, a Japanese fighter pilot who fought in Pearl Harbor. Last year, he was invited to speak at Pearl Harbor in a ceremony commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the attack. “I’ve learned now that there are still a lot of people who are grateful, still care, and remember what happened,” he says.

But Holder is not one to dwell in the past. He’s earning his real estate license and already has a job lined up with USA Real Estate. He aims to be playing golf when he surpasses the 100-year mark, he says. “I remember one of my friends sometime saying, ‘Jack’s just like a bulldog, he doesn’t give up.’”