Hero Tom Holmes died on Memorial Day

If a person could choose a special day on which to die, I can't think of any day more appropriate for a hero — Walter Tom Holmes Jr. — than Memorial Day.

Tom was one of the last of what Tom Brokaw labeled The Greatest Generation.

He was a much-decorated B-24 bomber pilot of World War II, a hero in every sense of the word. For his accomplishments in The Great War, Tom was decorated by three different countries — his own United States, Great Britain and France.

His American awards included the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, Pre-Pearl Harbor Yellow Ribbon, Presidential Citation with Oak Leaf Cluster, European Theater Ribbon with three Stars, American Theater Ribbon with one Star, China-Burma-India Ribbon, European Theater of Operations with three Stars and the World War II Victory Medal. Great Britain honored him with its British Distinguished Flying Cross. This past February, he was presented with the French Croix de Guerre. Both awards are the highest those countries give to allied combatants.

Despite all those awards and attention, Tom said his greatest accomplishment was that he never lost a crewmember while flying bombing missions over Europe.

Tom loved flying and his first real opportunity was the B-24, called a Victory Ship. He f lew three-dozen missions, the last of which he volunteered for because there was one Victory Ship without a pilot. So Capt. Holmes led a bomber group on the famous lowlevel Ploesti raid over Romanian oil fields that furnished most of Germany's fuel for the Nazi war effort.

He was an amazing man in many other ways and someone I was privileged to call friend.

When I moved to Jasper in 1991 to publish The Jasper Newsboy, Tom was in the midst of producing a newspaper-requested series of articles on the experiences of a World War II bomber pilot.

Tom moved to Jasper after World War II and opened a feed mill. Years later, he sold that and developed some land west of town (and near the airport) into one of Jasper's better subdivisions — Holmwood.

After living in Jasper for about a year, we decided to build a home and chose Holmwood. Tom, of course, sold us a lot across the street from him and the little lake he'd built as a center point for the development. Once we built and moved in, we noticed a tree in front of the house had a problem more serious than what we'd noted earlier. From the ground up about three and a half feet, the tree had a large area that was rotten and unsightly.

Tom came over one day to show me how to save the tree. He had me dig out the rotten area. Then he helped me put in rebar and pour concrete in the hollowedout area. Tom assured me that it would save the tree and ultimately the concrete would not be visible. Then, at age 73 or so, Tom climbed up the tree and cut off about 10 feet of rather unsightly height.

Sure enough, 16 years later when we sold the house, our perfectly formed tree was 50 feet tall, more than 20 feet taller than the topped tree of Tom's handiwork and the tree had grown around the concrete so the filler was no longer visible.

Our home had a wide gallery across the front of the house, where we sat often and long, gazing at the lake. In my Newsboy column, I used to begin by writing, "As I gaze out on Holmwood Pond..." which probably made Thoreau spin in his grave. That beginning offended the president of the homeowners association who called me and said, "You will cease and desist from calling it Holmwood Pond. It is Shadow Lake."

Upon informing Tom of the call, he smiled and said, "You keep on writing about Holmwood Pond. I love it."

At age 79, Tom's ladder on a tree slipped from under him and he fell 20 feet to the ground, fracturing his back. He had to stop helping people save trees.

Then, at age 90, his great heart stopped...on Memorial Day.

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2009-07-02 digital edition

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