An American hero: Jack Holder recounts surviving Pearl Harbor attack

Pearl Harbor survivor, Jack Holder, greets a young man at Ellsworth Brewery in Queen Creek. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Talking about American history should come naturally for WWII Pearl Harbor survivor Jack Holder.

But, there was once a time when the soft-spoken man, approaching 98, didn’t want to tell people that he survived the attack in Hawaii.

“For years, I never even told anyone that I was a World War II veteran, until a few years ago, I met a young lady who started asking me a lot of questions,” he said. “And she said, ‘you have to come out of the closet,’ that’s when I started making a lot of presentations.”

Now, there’s not many places the veteran goes without sharing his story.

“I was blown away just to meet the guy and talk to him,” said Queen Creek resident Todd Sautter, adding how the Pearl Harbor survivor is “sharp as a whip.”

Upon meeting Mr. Holder’s assistant, Dennis Gardner, on a recent train trip to New Orleans, Mr. Sautter learned of the legend’s story of survival and that the two lived near each other in the east Valley.

Mr. Holder, well revered in the community, often receives special treatment at Old Ellsworth Brewing Company, 22005 S. Ellsworth Road in Queen Creek where he dined on Sept. 13.

Jack Holder shows off the back of his Pearl Harbor Survivors Association jacket. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

“We have a little table set up for him. We buy him lunch and offer an opportunity for people to come sit and talk to him,” said brewery owner, Brian McKean. “Jack is a true American Hero. He’s been through quite a bit and we want to make him feel special and important for us.”

Mr. Holder, the author of “Fear, Adrenaline and Excitement,” goes to the restaurant so people can meet a resilient survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

When he’s not at the restaurant, his time is spent golfing or giving presentations about Pearl Harbor.

“It’s a pleasure to me to relay some of these stories to people when I know that they enjoy hearing them,” Mr. Holder said.

He realized how important the history he lived through was worth sharing after being invited to the World War II Museum in Washington D.C., stopping in Detroit, Michigan on the way.

“We landed in Detroit, there was a throng of people, 200 yards long, lined up on the tarmac to greet our plane when we taxied in,” he said.

That moment taught him that he needed to tell his story.

“I began to learn then that people still remembered and still cared,” he said. “So that changed my thinking on helping with the presentations and so forth about the military.”

His presentations to school children recall memories of enlisting in the Navy as a Machinist First Class at 18 after refusing to follow in the family farming business in Texas.

During his first presentation to a sixth grade class, he didn’t know where to start, so he asked how many of them heard of Pearl Harbor.

“Half of them raised their hands,” he said.

Then, he told the class his story of that day filled with recollections of planes, bombs, machine guns, hiding in a ditch.

“I had duty that day which means you stand watch. We were in the hangar, when the section leader began roll call and we heard the screaming aircraft. We first thought it was our own aircraft, probably about to crash or something,” he said. “But moments later we heard a terrible explosion. We ran outside, we saw the hangar next to ours, received the first bomb that fell at Pearl Harbor — about 100 yards from me.”

Twelve of the aircrafts that were between the two hangers, which were only two weeks old, were also on fire.

The USS Arizona Memorial, at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

“We also saw by then that the aircraft circling overhead with the rising sun (symbols),” he said. “We knew exactly what they were and what had happened.”

Mr. Holder and one of his shipmates survived by heading for lower ground.

“It so happened that one of my shipmates remembered there was a sewer line under construction behind our hangar. He said, ‘Let’s go for the ditch, follow me.’ We all ran and jumped in the ditch and sat there clinging to each other,” Mr. Holder said.

“One of the pilots saw us, turns straight for us with machine gun fire, missing us by a few feet, hit the dirt that was piled by the side of the ditch.”

He said he is often asked what was going through his mind at that time.

“I guess the one that’s the most vivid is ‘God, please don’t let me die in this ditch.’”

Mr. Holder said he didn’t know how long he and his shipmate were in the ditch but when they came out they saw all the devastation.

“You could look down battleship row and see all the ships there were on fire,” he said. “It’s a sight I will never forget.”

He was based on Ford Island with land based aircraft. Days after the attack, they returned to normal duties, Mr. Holder said, noting that he was in the battle of Midway and was in the second aircraft to spot the Japanese fleet coming.

He said he is often asked why he wanted to go to Midway, and he has a simple answer.

“It was strictly for revenge,” he said. “This is not a formation of aircraft, you’re out there a single aircraft by yourself. You don’t have any fighter protection. PBY’s didn’t have that much armament.”

The planes had two 50-caliber machine guns behind the wings, and 30-caliber machine guns in the nose, Mr. Holder described.

“She certainly was no match for a Japanese Zero,” he added. “We came home a lot of times with many holes in our aircraft but no one was ever killed. (We) always made it back.”

When Mr. Holder arrived home, he noticed that it was a “new world.” He went to school, got his commercial pilot’s license and started flying for Los Angeles Air Service, a charter airline, for seven years as a co-pilot.

“Back in 1956, they had a Hungarian revolt, people were leaving the country. I was flying passengers from Munich, Germany to New York.

That was quite an experience,” said the post war pilot.

He then went to work for Union Oil as a co-pilot. After a year, he got his transport license and spent 10 years as a captain. Allied Signal, which became Honeywell, eventually brought him to Arizona.

A message he always conveys to people is the importance of the United States.

“I think it is very important for people to realize — and I stress this to all the young classes I present to — we live in the greatest nation in the world,” he said. “We need to treasure it, fight for it if necessary.”

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