Jack Holder joined the U.S. Navy at 18 years old in 1940. A Texas native born into a family of farmers, he would become a naval aviator and fly more than 100 missions during World War II. Before he ended up flying missions in both theaters of the war, he would have to survive the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Holder was on Ford’s Island when the first wave of Japanese planes hit the Navy’s ships and infrastructure on Oahu that morning. He had to throw himself into a ditch to avoid enemy strafing fire. He and his shipmates prayed, “God, please don’t let me die in this ditch.”
“The first bomb that fell on Pearl Harbor was about 100 yards from me,” Holder would later say, adding that he “saw guys swimming through burning oil in the water.” He would eventually take cover behind sandbags in a machine gun pit, a position he would maintain for the next three days.
“I wondered if this was the day I would die,” Holder told the Arizona Republic in a 2016 interview. “That morning I watched as Japanese dive bombers devastated Pearl Harbor. I knew that we would no longer sit on the sidelines of the war ravaging Europe.”
Holder began his career as a Machinist’s Mate. When he and his shipmates heard the explosions, they ran outside. A Japanese pilot immediately tried to kill them. As they dove into the ditch, a bomb hit the hangar next to them. The pilot then strafed the ditch.
“I could still see him making the approach with the grinning white teeth and the leather helmet,” he told DoD News. “It’s a memory I’ll never forget.”
From his point of view on Ford’s Island, he could see the destruction wrought by the Japanese surprise attack. He saw USS Arizona, USS West Virginia, USS Tennessee, USS Nevada, USS Oklahoma, and USS California, all on fire, sinking to the bottom of the harbor.
He survived Pearl Harbor intact and as the war progressed, so did Holder’s Navy career. He trained to fly aircraft and by June 1942, he was behind the stick of a fighter, meeting the Japanese approach to the island of Midway, where he got vengeance for the 1941 surprise attack. Missions over Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands were next. Then he trained to fly the B-24 Liberator bomber and was transferred to the European Theater.
For his distinguished Navy service, Holder was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, six Air Medals, a Presidential Unit Citation and six commendation medals before being honorably discharged in 1948. After the war, he became a commercial and corporate airline pilot. He retired to Arizona, where he died on February 28, 2023. He will eventually be interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
Holder was at Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary of the attack. There, he shared his thoughts about the event 75 years later.
“You relive the moments. You’re so grateful for our wonderful country in which we live,” he said. “You regret the sacrifices but you also exhilarate from the victory that we made and how we’re doing now.”
On top of his secret to longevity (“good heart exercise and two scotch and sodas every night”), Holder also shared his message to the youth of America:
“I tried to stress with them the need for them to stay in school, learn all the education they can,” he said, “and remember that we live in the greatest country in the world, learn to respect it, and be willing to protect it.”