(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II in 2011-12. Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).
When the military advertised that men with college degrees in engineering would automatically qualify as commissioned officers, John Holeman of Baton Rouge decided it was time to get involved in America’s World War II war effort. This was late in 1943.
The Shreveport boy had received his degree in engineering from LSU where he was in ROTC and a member of the Pershing Rifles team. He’d gone to work for a short time afterwards as a chemical engineer at the government-built alumina refinery at the foot of the Huey P. Long Bridge on the Mississippi River. The light-weight metal was much in demand for airplanes.
Once he signed up, Holeman traveled to New Orleans where he got his commission as an ensign in the U. S. Navy. Then he went up to Plattsburg, New York, for six weeks of training (on the lake) where they learned the basics of navigation and ship-handling on Lake Champlain. Then the men were shipped to San Francisco where they reported to billet (“a place to eat and sleep,” he explained). There would be no additional training during this time, just waiting for transportation to the Pacific.
When the time came, Holeman headed to the South Pacific, to Bougainville Island, just east of New Guinea in the Solomon Islands, where he was attached to Flotilla 7. The flotilla consisted of 15 LCTs (landing craft tank), smaller than the LCTs of the Normandy landing but with the same drop hatch for loading in the front.
“The island had no deep water ports,” the veteran recalls. “The LCTs would come alongside the big supply ships to offload supplies by hand. The LCTs could then supply everything for the Army, Navy and Air Force. They also supplied outlying bases.”
The veteran recalls that when he arrived, “Dick ‘Pop’ Swiat was on the same boat. He was the skipper, I was the trainee. After three months, it was deemed that I could run LCT 946.”
Probably 300 or 400 tons of cargo was taken off each ship onto the LCTs by hand, using Fiji Islander Harbor “or anyone else who could stow stuff. It took a couple of days to offload a big ship.”
Holeman said that when the smaller LCT neared shore, the front end dropped for unloading, still in shallow water. As the boat was approaching, they’d drop a large anchor into the deeper water. When unloaded, if the LCT was still grounded, the cable connected to the anchor could be reeled in “like a giant fishing reel” to haul the LCT back to deeper water.
While the Bougainville Campaign, from late 1943 through most of 1944, was a significant conflict in the Pacific Theater, that action took place on the north end of the large island and Holeman on the south end said they saw no more conflict activity that occasional planes on the horizon, hearing no gunfire.
He explained that one of the first priorities upon arriving on Bougainville was construction of an Officers’ Club, “a place you could drink for a dime and play cards.”
Holeman said, “One time we ended up with the job of carrying 90 tons of express cargo…stuff that was badly needed, like spare parts for repairs. We went up the Wang Poo River, into Saigon. Going from ocean to river was like going down the main street in New York, except instead of cars, there were junks as far as you could see. They put a Chinese guide on board to show us how to navigate through those junks. He stood at the rail and blew a whistle. All at once, the junks parted to make room for our boat.”
When word of the end of the war came through, there was an Australian destroyer in port. “The skipper invited a dozen of us aboard for ‘booze and fun.’ The Australian and British ships allowed booze on board. American ships didn’t. That was my only encounter with the Australians until much later. I helped them drink their beer, which was excellent.”
The lieutenant (junior grade) boarded a ship with 10,000 soldiers in Guam to return stateside. “They drafted people to stand guard over cargo holds, to keep the peace. I didn’t get drafted. But three days later, this announcement came over the ship’s speakers, ‘Lt. Holeman, report to the Bridge.’
“A young officer told me I was supposed to relieve him 30 minutes earlier. I hadn’t realized I had duty assignements. It turned out that with all these men aboard, there were only four commisisoned officers and I was one of them. I was the deck officer, in charge of running the ship while the captain is not there. The biggest thing I’d skippered until that time was my LCT. The junior officer explained things to me and I took it from there. A couple of days later, I was looking from the bridge to the deck below. The soldiers were getting some sun when I saw them all begin to move to one side of the ship. They were pointing and about 20 yards out was a floating mine, with horns just like you see in the movies. The captain was called to the bridge. The Marines came with their rifles and sank the mine.”
After spending a few weeks in San Francisco, Holeman went with a trainload of soldiers to New Orleans where he was discharged. From there, it was destination Shreveport.
“The GI Bill meant I got to go back to school for free so I got my Masters degree in engineering.” He went to work at the same refinery on the river by the bridge. But now it was owned by Kaiser Aluminum. Postwar Holeman volunteered for and served in the Naval Reserve.
He had met a pretty young woman, New Orleans native Katherine Wilson, prior to the war but had paid little attention and neither correspondend during the war. “But after the war when I opened an account at Louisiana National Bank where she was a teller (one of the first two female tellers in the city), I learned more about her. Our acquaintance, you could say, improved.”
They were married on his birthday, December 22, 1946, in First Baptist Church and recently celebrated their 65th anniversary. They have four sons, ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
As a footnote to his wartime encounter with the Australians, his career would eventually take him and his family to Australia on the design and construction project of a major alumina refinery on the east coast that would grow to become the largest in the world.
(Editor’s note: The writer of this series realizes that John Holeman is not a Winn native or resident. However, Bob Holeman takes the liberty this week to interview his dad).