On his 100th birthday, today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Navy Veteran Joseph Norman “Jack” Holder, a survivor from the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Joseph Norman “Jack” Holder was born in rural Gunter, Texas, on Dec. 13, 1921. Holder’s family were impoverished farmers who lived in a small, four-room house with no electricity, running water, telephone or toilet. During Holder’s youth, in the midst of the Great Depression, the costs of goods were low—gasoline was only 15 cents per gallon, and candy bars or soda could be purchased for a nickel—but no one had the money to spend on luxuries.
“It’s a very devastating job… nothing but labor and no money,” Holder said of farming in a 2016 interview. “I’ve seen all the devastation on the farm and no money.”
Determined not to spend his life on the farm and driven by a childhood fascination with aviation, Holder enlisted in the Navy in April 1940 with the aim of becoming a pilot. After finishing basic training in San Diego, Holder completed an additional four months of training as an aviation machinist’s mate and deployed aboard USS Platte. He arrived in Pearl Harbor in December 1940.
“When I got the orders to transfer to Hawaii, I was delighted,” Holder said. “I knew all about the… glorious things there, and for a young farm boy [from] Texas to see something like that, it would really be an experience. I was very happy with the decision.”
Holder was 19 years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the U.S. into World War II. Holder himself narrowly survived the attack when he and a group of his shipmates dove into a sewer ditch to avoid being strafed by machine gun fire from a Japanese fighter aircraft, one that flew so close Holder could see the pilot’s face.
Holder later said, “My most vivid remembrance was, ‘God, please don’t let me die in this ditch.’”
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Holder flew over 100 missions and participated in some of the most significant engagements of the war, including the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands campaign and the Battle of the Bay of Biscay. Holder admits that he volunteered for the Battle of Midway “strictly for revenge” against Japan, and he got it: at Midway, he bombed and sank a Japanese submarine.
“[Japan] came to Midway with four carriers,” Holder said in 2021, “and left with none.”
Holder honorably discharged in 1948 with the rank of aviation machinist’s mate first class. During his service he received several honors, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, numerous commendation medals and a Combat Action Medal.
After the war, Holder used his skills as a pilot to fly corporate and commercial aircraft. For decades, he did not discuss his wartime service; it was only in his 90s, after being invited on an honor flight back to Pearl Harbor, that he realized others might be interested in his story. In 2014, he authored a memoir of his experiences titled “Fear, Adrenaline, and Excitement.”
“I feel awfully lucky,” Holder said. “Very fortunate.”
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Writer: Stephen Hill
Editors: Theresa Lyon and Annabelle Colton
Fact checker: Giacomo Ferrari
Graphic artist: Kiki Kelley