‘I’ll never forget’: Pearl Harbor survivor & Arizonan Jack Holder remembers surprise attack

Editor’s note: former U.S. pilot Jack Holder died Feb. 26, 2023.

What started as a calm Sunday morning in Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941, ended as a terrible day in American history.

Few truly understand the gravity of that experience like Chandler resident Jack Holder.

“I seen devastation there that I’ll never forget,” Holder said. “It’s very vivid. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Eight decades ago, Japan launched a plan to bomb U.S. ships anchored
at Pearl Harbor, hoping to preemptively cripple the Pacific fleet. The
surprise attack killed more than 2,400 military personnel, wounded 1,100
people and damaged or destroyed 19 ships, including the USS Arizona.

One bomb hit near the front of the battleship, touching off an
enormous explosion that killed more than a thousand sailors and Marines
on board.

The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress and
the nation in a speech: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will
live in infamy, the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked
by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

‘We knew exactly what had happened’

Holder is one of fewer than 75 Pearl Harbor survivors still living, reports the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors.

At first, Holder didn’t talk much about his service in the war, said
close friend Bob Dalpe, who met Holder nine years ago at a Battle of the
Midway remembrance event at the Arizona Capitol in downtown Phoenix.

“That was his first time going to an event that talks about World War II,” Dalpe said.

Holder, who turns 100 Monday, didn’t talk about his service because he didn’t think people cared about the war or its veterans.

About 10 years ago, Holder booked a spot on the Arizona Honor Flight to visit the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.

“We landed in Detroit, and there was a throng of people 200 yards
long lined up on the tarmac to greet our plane,” he said. “Prior to
that, I didn’t think anybody remembered or even cared. But that changed
my mind.”

Holder grew up in East Texas during the Great Depression. He was
inspired by his uncle, who flew a small crop dusting plane above the
farm fields that Holder’s family worked, to fly. In April 1940, at 18,
he enlisted in the Navy.

He was prepared – his father had been in the Army during World War I –
but nothing could equip him for the attack he experienced or the
battles he fought.

Almost a year to the day before the attack at Pearl Harbor, Holder
arrived as a member of the PBY Squadron VP-26, a patrol and
reconnaissance group that surveyed an area ahead of a fleet’s arrival.
He admired the beauty of the naval base.

“You can imagine how beautiful it was to a young Texas boy that had
never seen anything except cornfields and cotton fields,” he said. “All
the beautiful pineapple fields, the beautiful sandy beaches, all of the
water, all the pretty girls on the beaches. It was a gorgeous place,
prior to December the seventh.”

On that day of infamy, Holder was on duty at Ford Island, where the
attack was concentrated. He said he can still clearly see the face of
the Japanese pilot who shot at him and his fellow shipmates as they hid
in a sewer ditch.

“When the first bomb fell at Pearl Harbor, it fell about 100 yards
from me,” Holder said. “My section was in the hangar. The section leader
had just started roll call when the first bomb dropped. And we all run
outside to see what had happened in the explosion. We seen all the
aircraft and this guy with a rising sun insignia. We knew exactly what
had happened.”

After the U.S. officially entered the war, Holder flew more than 100
missions, including many that turned the tide in favor of the U.S. in
the Pacific Theater: the Battle of Midway and the Solomon Islands
campaign, including the largest island, Guadalcanal. He also flew
missions in the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay, on the coast of


Roosevelt said the attack at Pearl Harbor would live in infamy. Even
80 years later, it has. Many are commemorating the attack at Pearl
Harbor and remembering the lives lost that day and the sacrifices made

Commemorations and remembrances may be even more important now, as
many World War II veterans have died and few continue to tell the
stories of the war.

“World War II is as distant for kids nowadays as the Civil War was to
(Holder) when he was growing up,” Dalpe said. “(Kids) have to
understand what this country was like, what (veterans) did for you to
have what you have now. You have to honor the sacrifices.”

In Arizona, the attack is being remembered Tuesday at the USS Arizona
Memorial Gardens at Salt River. From above, the memorial replicates the
size and shape of the USS Arizona, which still lies at the bottom of
Pearl Harbor.

Lauressa Thomas, a tourism manager for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa
Indian Community, said the “gardens are really a place to remember, to
pay respect, and really just reflect on Pearl Harbor and the USS

“Eighty years ago doesn’t seem that long,” she said. “But a lot of
our youth may not realize the impact that Pearl Harbor had. And I think
the gardens are a great place to do that.”

Tuesday at sunset, the gardens will be lit up.

“The lights represent all those who perished just on the USS
Arizona,” Thomas said. “To see over 1,100 columns lit up and see only
about 330 not lit, really helps people understand the impact that just
that ship alone had on Pearl Harbor and the casualties that we

Casualties Holder and other survivors hope will long be remembered.