Interview with Walter Holy
Interviewed by Tony Welch
Don't Count Him Out Yet!
Uncle Sam’s In A Jam. But Not To Worry.
Help’s On The Way From An Unlikely Source.
...as told to Tony Welch
An astounding number of American teenagers, both male and female, altered their
birth dates in order to serve their country during World War 11. The practice reached
its peak in 1943. Over time, nearly 50,000 were detected and sent home. Among the
many who eventually managed to enlist, a handful was discovered – court martialed
– and then stripped of any valor awards they might have earned. But the great majority
– some 200,000 -- went unnoticed and served honorably for the duration. Among those
sworn in was Walter Holy (rhymes with ‘moly,’ as in ‘holy moly’). Walter and his
wife Frances reside in Vancouver, Washington, just over the Columbia River from
Portland. There’s a possibility that Walt’s combat boots are still stashed in the
hall closet, just in case. What might Walter be thinking? If you’re never too young,
then you’re also never too old…?
“I had a close boyhood friend named Robert Palmer,” Walt begins. “We lived in the
same town. Bob was 14 and wanted to get in the Navy. He talked to me about it, and
we decided to try it together. I was two years older than Bob. My parents were divorced
and I lived at home with my mother and stepfather.
“So we both went in for a physical exam. Bob passed with flying colors, but I failed.
I was underweight, color-blind and had 20/30 vision. And because we were buddies,
and determined to stick together no matter what, we had to figure out a way to beat
“So we went down and registered for the draft – which by law you had to do on your
eighteenth birthday – on the very day you turned 18. I went in first and asked the
lady: ‘Is this where you register for the draft?’ And she said yes. And maybe ten
minutes went by, and then Bob came in. No eye contact, nothing. And he asked the
lady the same question. So we both registered. The date was April 11, 1944 – the
day we both turned eighteen. That is…kind of. On paper, anyway. Neither of us was
asked a single question.
“So when we were done, I said to the gal: “What can I do to go right now?” And she
said: “Go down to the end of the counter and fill out the blank form titled ‘Request
for Immediate Induction.’ And then Bob did the same thing. Again, no questions asked.
“So while we’re waiting to get called up, Bob and I went to work in the Portland
shipyards. I believe the job description was called marine electrician helpers –
lots to do with wiring and insulating a ship’s interior. I quit high school in my
sophomore year, and Bob quit even earlier. My mother never interfered. I told her
of my intentions, and she was okay with that.
“In May we got orders to report to the induction center. More physicals. By pure
chance, my older brother Arnie showed up – he was going into the Marine Corps. Arnie
didn’t know I was going, and I didn’t know he was going. He didn’t have much to
say – but whatever it was suddenly caught Bob’s ear. Bob Palmer and Walt Holy –
the glue that always stuck together – suddenly began to fall apart. So Bob passed
the physical with flying colors, got sworn in as a Marine, and left me stranded
because I flunked my second physical. But the Army wasn’t quite so fussy. It had
lower standards. So that’s where I ended up.
“Seven of us inductees got shipped north to Fort Lewis, Washington. Here I was,
16 years old, and I was put in charge on the train. Then in mid-May a bunch of us
were shipped out to Camp Roberts in California, for basic training.
Walter Holy at age 16, a certified paratrooper and now home on leave for a well-deserved
rest. Looking back through time and also at home is Walt’s alter ego – now age 84
“Not long after D-day, I noticed these big posters being plastered around the base
-- ‘Jump Into The Fight!’ So I decided to do a little recruiting of my own, so to
speak. I rounded up ten other guys who were like-minded – lots of esprite de corps,
gung ho. Deep down I was really rooting for them, because I knew I couldn’t pass
the paratroop physical. The test for color-blindness was going to stop me again.
“So during the exam a nurse walks up to me and she’s got this open box full of cotton
balls, all different colors. If you’ve ever taken a color-blind test, you’ll recall
that numbers are hidden in a crazy-quilt kind of background. If your eyesight is
normal, you can distinguish the numbers apart from the confusing maze pattern. The
nurse said to me: ‘Pick out a green ball.’ Luckily, I could make out the very faintest
haze of green on some of the balls, but none of the numbers were visible. So I said
to her: ‘Which shade of green do you want me to pick?’ And she said: ‘OK – you pass.’
“There was close to a hundred who qualified, and off we went in freight cars to
Fort Benning and jump school. Have you ever peeled potatoes in a rocking freight
car for four days straight? That was my introduction to the paratroopers.
Walt (second from left) and four buddies entrain for Fort Benning, Georgia and jump
school. Walt says he put the four-day rail journey to good use -- peeling spuds.
“Two months of training and five jumps later, I was in. There’s lots or stories
floating around about how tough it was to make the grade. For example, if a trainee
decided to quit – or failed to meet the standard early on – he was returned to the
regular Army for infantry combat training. But if a wannabe made it past his first
jump and then threw in the towel, he was treated like a convict and sent to the
guardhouse under lock and key. And after a while off he went to a repple depple
as an infantry replacement. In my own case, I took pretty much everything in stride.
Hard physical work came natural to me. Even before I was a teenager, I bucked hay
bales that weighed eighty to a hundred pounds, stacking them five layers high. And
I worked on a tug boat assembling log rafts that we chained together and then towed
down the Willamette River from Oregon City to Portland. Had to learn how to keep
my feet under me. I got dumped once by a rolling log and came this close to buying
the farm. And I was heavy into running. Sometimes I’d run seven or eight miles,
for no reason at all.
“So I think it’s fair to say I had a certain level of self-confidence based on what
I’d accomplished as a youngster. I made it a point to volunteer for anything and
everything. Since the airborne was a strictly volunteer outfit to begin with, they
expected to see that same spirit displayed each and every time a challenge arose.
After awhile it became just plain habit.
“That’s not to say I didn’t step in it – but good. One day I came out of my tent
and walked past a second Louie. I made some casual remark he didn’t like. Now, a
second lieutenant – the lowest of the low among the commissioned ranks, and comparatively
speaking equivalent to the pecking order of a lowly private in the enlisted ranks
– is not only the dumbest animal in the military, but also the most dangerous. The
next thing I knew, I was charged with insubordination, disrespect to an officer,
and for good measure -- drinking on duty. I was arrested and confined to quarters
– with an armed guard, to boot.
“I took a big chance and asked to see my commanding officer. I told him I was under-age,
hoping that the charges would be dropped. He had virtually no reaction to my confession,
and replied that he was going to let the charges go forward. I can’t be sure, of
course, but I believe he was thinking – okay Holy, you wanna play with the big boys,
then go do it.
“The guard assigned to watch over my confinement was a former preacher turned paratrooper,
and apparently very sensitive to what he viewed as an injustice. At the pre-trial
hearing, he testified that he was witness to my encounter with the officer and that
none of the charges were true. The second lieutenant was nowhere to be seen that
day. The court prepared a letter for the guard to sign – which contained a number
of falsehoods. He refused to sign it. By the next day, all charges were dropped.
So back to my commanding officer I went. He informed me that even though I was underage,
my parents would have to request my release in writing. And what did I think of
that? I said: ‘Sir – ship me overseas.’ And he said: ‘That’s what I want to hear.’
And that’s when it became apparent to me that the airborne lived in a snug little
world of its own, guided by its own set of rules and regulations. None of which
was anybody else’s business.
The 8,000-ton J. W. McAndrew, an army troop transport on loan from the U.S. Navy.
The ship was struck bow-on at night by another vessel in the convoy, slicing away
half the forecastle and taking with it more than a hundred sleeping paratroopers.
“Meantime, my outfit was long gone overseas – 1,250 out of 1,500 having graduated.
I left New York harbor in March aboard the J.S. McAndrew, an 8,000-ton army transport
jam-packed with 1,900 military aboard. A bunch of ships in the convoy. Halfway to
our destination, at around four in the morning, a beat-up French aircraft carrier
lost its steerage and plowed almost head-on into the McAndrew. The carrier cut through
the starboard side of our bow at about a 20 degree angle, then continued on for
another 75 feet until it exited on the McAndrew’s port side. I was fast asleep on
the sixth tier of bunks. If the collision had occurred no more than a couple seconds
later than it did, the incoming bow would have smashed right through my compartment.
So I missed getting it by about ten feet. A bunch of paratroopers were berthed in
the severed forward section of the ship. Seventy-one of them were crushed to death
or drowned and many more wounded. We all thought we’d been torpedoed, and there
was a mad scramble in the dark trying to sort things out.
“So here we were, missing half our bow with the big ocean swells breaking against
the exposed compartments on the port side. The captain finally got his vessel turned
stern-end to the waves, to reduce the flooding. It took four days under tow to reach
the Azores. And from there we hitched a taxi ride aboard an escort destroyer that
unloaded us aboard a British transport enroute from New Zealand to Liverpool, England.
Then onto another transport at Southhampton headed to France. But wait – there’s
more. Talk about jinxed! In the middle of the English Channel, the engine blew up.
Then back again to Southhampton under tow. From there we boarded a Polish vessel
– our fifth boat ride – which somehow managed to make it to LeHavre. And from there
by train to northern France, where I was assigned to the 101st Airborne, 506th Regiment,
I Company, Third Battalion.
“By this time what was left of the German army was pretty much on the run. Mostly
we acted as clean-up squads behind the various infantry battalions. Okay -- the
things that stick in my mind, big and little – that never go away. One day I was
chatting with a medic, who was tending to a former concentration camp inmate still
wearing his striped prison garb. Another German strolled up, nicely fitted in civilian
clothes. Out of nowhere, the medic tells the ex-prisoner to take off his prison
rags. He then turns to the German and tells him to undress as well. The German loudly
refuses. The medic then draws his Colt .45 – which sidearm field medics were forbidden
to wear. Where upon the German strips down to his underwear in record time. So they
swap clothes. The prisoner looked real sharp in his new wardrobe, despite being
not much more than skin and bones. The German – not at all happy. The medic was
all smiles – his good deed for the day. Little things…
“Another time I was ordered to bring a wounded paratrooper to a distant aid station
for treatment. The regiment had acquired a German-made Opel sedan. Half the car
was a storage bin, stuffed with company records and documents. So away we went and
I let the soldier off at his destination. But then I got lost – most of the road
signs were destroyed and somehow I got turned around. I went up and down the autobahn,
around and around the clover-leafs. Every now and then I’d hear cannon fire. This
went on for three days. I was sleeping nights in the car. Finally, I decided it
was safer to restrict my driving to the country roads. Why? Because one night I
was parked on the autobahn half asleep. I heard a noise, and it kept getting louder
and louder. I started the car and pulled way over past the shoulder. It wasn’t but
a few moments later that a column of Shermans came roaring by – a bunch of crazy
French tank drivers going like mad in the dark. Too much wine! That made the second
time the French almost got me.
“So anyway --I’m driving along a country road the next day and up ahead is this
column of marching solders. They hear me coming from behind and move over to let
me pass. I slow down to a walking pace. Only then do I realize they’re Germans,
and fully armed. As I pull alongside, I notice one of the soldiers is carrying a
backpack and there’s two bottles of booze sticking out the top. Now mind you, I’m
not wearing my helmet. And I’m driving a German vehicle. Just another civilian,
right? I stick my arm out the window and point at the bottles and ask the soldier
if I can have one. He gets my meaning somehow and reaches over his shoulder, grabs
a bottle, and hands it to me. He’s as up-tight as I am, maybe more. From the tone
of his voice and gestures and facial expressions, I realize that I’m pushing my
luck – and then some. So I gently step on the gas and gradually move ahead, hoping
nobody takes a close look. I happen to take a sideways glance, and across the valley
I spot a M20 armored reconnaissance vehicle. Just at that moment a German artillery
round strikes the M20 and there’s a cloud of smoke and fire and lots of noise. A
perfect diversion, and one more reason to get out of there and find my way back.
Which I eventually did.
“There’s no denying Bavaria’s a beautiful country, that’s for sure. Even in wartime.
We finally made it to Berchtesgaden, where Hitler had his mountain retreat. Sorry
to say, I never made it up there. We were bivouacked in the town below, arriving
almost on the same day Germany surrendered. I was walking across the city hall courtyard
with another guy when I happened to look ahead and noticed a DUKW driving along.
DUKWs were a large amphibious bathtub-like vehicle used to transport men and cargo
over land and water. Think of a big open boat with wheels. There was a series of
large stone archways bordering the courtyard. The amphib suddenly turned and headed
straight for one of the arches with the obvious intent of driving through. I shouted
out: ‘Look Al – they’re not going to make it!’ Which wouldn’t have been a big deal,
except for the bunch of German prisoners who were aboard -- all of them packed together
like sardines and standing upright.
“Al remained riveted to the spot – absolutely refusing to move. The war was over,
and he wanted nothing more to do with the dead and dying. I ran over to the archway
– and then wished I hadn’t. Some of the prisoners had their faces literally ripped
off . Around 25 had serious injuries, and at least a half-dozen died from the impact
right before my eyes. The DUKW driver jumped out and took off at a run and disappeared.
All I could do was stand there and think of the irony of it all. To go through the
war and survive, and then die like this. That really hit home – the sadness of it
has never left me to this day. It made me think of the couple accidental encounters
I’d been through, and barely escaped.
PFC Holy in his spit-shine Sunday best. At war’s end, Walt served in General Eisenhower’s
honor guard at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), Frankfurt,
Germany. At right: only 10 and already jumpy, this lad models a junior paratroop
camo outfit “….just like my grand-dad’s.” There’s no parachute inside the pack –
just bubble gum and M&Ms .
“The 506th occupied a number of other towns before going back to France for more
training. Then Harry dropped the bomb, and not long after that the division was
disbanded and we shifted over to the 508th. So in January, 1946 I decided to re-enlist,
still a PFC. Went home on ninety days leave, then returned to Germany. The regiment
was redeployed to the states and disbanded. Most of us were reassigned to the 504th
Regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C. I requested assignment to Germany but was sent to Italy
and became a military policeman. Then followed up as a truck driver in Trieste,
on the Adriatic. Discharged December 20th, 1948 after four years, seven months and
one day. Three weeks later I turned 21.
“I went to work for Crown Zellerbach and stayed with them until 1956. I was tinkering
with the math one day and realized that if I went back on active duty, I could retire
in another 15 years. Whereas if I stayed with Crown Zellerbach, it would take 37-1/2
years to retire. I got to discussing this with some of the older guys at the mill
and more than one said he was kicking his own butt for not staying in – now that
they were too old to re-enlist.
“So that’s what I did. Joined the air force. But I didn’t quit at twenty. I stayed
on for a total of 32-1/2 years, including my earlier service during the war. The
last twenty-four months were special extensions, and I was welcome to more of the
same if I wanted it. Beside stateside duty in Texas, I was stationed in England,
France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Norway, Holland, Taiwan and Vietnam. Missed Korea
somehow. My specialty was aircraft and engine maintenance, plus a good chunk of
time as a technical instructor. Retired as an E-9. In plain English – that’s a Chief
“Say…..you want another cuppa coffee?”
Going back to antiquity, boy soldiers were commonly recruited in virtually every
country of the world. Gradually the practice came to be frowned upon, and ultimately
prohibited. Personal accounts —such as the one you’ve just read – reveal the depth
of guile that determined youngsters were capable of – no matter what nationality.
In England during WW1, underage volunteers would often slip a piece of paper inside
a shoe before entering a recruiting office. When the sergeant asked the lad if he
was “over 18” – the legal age to enlist -- the applicant could then honestly reply
in the affirmative (thanks to the number 18 written on the slip of paper he was
standing on). In Germany, entire classrooms of male students would march to the
nearest enlistment center – often led by their much-older teacher to set an example.
Numerous cases are documented where patriotic-driven British fathers were turned
away because of their advanced age. An underage son would then apply in place of
his father, who in turn was perfectly happy to forge any necessary paperwork. The
family could now proudly proclaim it had done its part – for king and country.
America’s monarch – Uncle Sam – can’t make any claim to royalty, but he’s sure got
his hooks into loyalty. Sam has no friends more devoted than the Veterans of Underage
Military Service – VUMS for short. Founded in 1991 by Allan Stover, a coast guardsman
who joined the military at age 14, VUMS has chapters in numerous states. Stover
petitioned the various branches of the armed services, seeking assurance that no
legal action would be taken against those who fraudulently entered the military
below the legal age limit. Eventually, his perseverance prevailed. Previously, many
thousands kept their secret carefully tucked away. Exposure carried the real threat
of lost retirement pay, VA health care and other benefits. Yet there’s still a scattered
few who refuse to step forward, convinced that it’s all a sham.
Don’t ask -- don’t tell? VUMS members held the patent rights to that battle cry
long before it was resurrected for an altogether different purpose.
The word “proactive” best describes the engine that propels VUMS members wherever
they gather. This supportive group, from the greater Portland area, meets monthly.
Note the age of enlistment combined with current age. Front row, from left: John
“Corky” Apilado, Oregon state VUMS chaplain, USN, 15/69; Robert Hanna, USAF, 16/81;
Willie Paradise, Oregon State VUMS commander, USA-USN, 16/73. Back row: Walter Holy,
USA-USAF; 16/84; John Sweeny, USA, 16/72; Dale Halm, USN, 16/84.
Copyright © 2012 Tony Welch
Written by Tony Welch. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Tony Welch at:
About the author:
Tony Welch has recorded oral histories of WWII veterans in seven states.
His interest in preserving first-person battlefield accounts began a half-century ago, when as a U.S. Navy journalist he began
"picking the brains" of senior enlisted men. Says Welch: "If they had four or more hash marks on their sleeve and campaign ribbons on their chest,
they were fair game."
Published online: 03/10/2012.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.