Greatest Generation veteran shares stories of duty, honor, family

WWII veteran wishes to pass on his legacy before he goes

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects, Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter

A Jacksonville family is on a mission to make sure we never forget. Their 93-year-old father is a member of the Greatest Generation, and they want to make sure he can tell the world how much he's given to them and to his country -- before he's gone.

The Greatest Generation, which is a phrase coined by news anchor Tom Brokaw, is a title for those who survived the Great Depression, battled to victory in World War II, and witnessed some of the most pivotal moments in history.

Charles Holland, a U.S Navy veteran and Jacksonville father, is one of those heroes. About 348 veterans from that time are lost every day to old age, and Holland may not have much time left himself.

That brings us to his powerful and emotional story -- in his own words -- about duty, honor and family.

Holland joined the Navy as a teenager

"When Pearl Harbor got attacked, it was just like an attack in the United States itself. Everybody that was able to walk, talk, or do anything joined the military. They were standing in line in groups, they just wanted to get in. They couldn't wait to get over there, get whoever did that and to get things straightened out," Holland explained.

Holland was just 16 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, but the Navy wouldn't let him join -- at first.

"I tried to. I wasn't very big. I only weighed about 97 pounds, was still about 5' 4½" or thereabouts. I tried to get in then and I was too small and too young," he said. "They told me to come back when I got older."

To get a little bigger, Holland says, the Navy gave him sort of a diet plan.

"Yeah, they did. They told me to eat a lot of bananas. I said, 'I think I'll eat about 25 or 30 pounds of them,'" Holland said, laughing. "I had cousins that were old enough. It bothered me when they left and I couldn't go with them."

His cousins joined the U.S. Army, but soon after, Holland was able to join the Navy. 

"When I first joined, I left my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina. I went into Raleigh. Raleigh was a recruitment area," Holland said. "They did the paperwork, and there they put you on a train and sent you up to Norfolk, Virginia -- which had opened a training center up there after World War II started.

"So we went there for our training and at that time they had cut the training down to 30 days. The training used to be three months before the war, but due to needing people on ships and all, they cut that down to 30 days. And we stayed up there in Norfolk for training and we went through very different activities -- mostly about getting acquainted with ships and how to, you know, live on a ship, how to maintain a ship, how to survive out there by yourself."

UNCUT: Charles Holland...in his own words

Holland went to war (and got lost on the way)

"I finished my training. I was put on another train sent north. I got into New York City, and being a boy from the South, I've never been in New York City in my life. We got lost in Central Station," Holland recalled. "We didn’t know what to do. It was about six of us. And all of a sudden, somebody said, ‘Well, why don’t you call the military police in New York City and they'll find out where you're going and how to get there.’ So they did. They come down and picked us up, took us out to where their office was at, got a hold of where we had come from, got another transportation ordered for us, sent us on up to Portland, Maine. That's where our ship was that we were supposed to catch. That ship was the USS Massachusetts."

North Africa

The year was 1942, and Holland says he stayed on the USS Massachusetts the entire war.

"I went on it on like a Tuesday, and like on a Friday, we got underway for North Africa," he said. "We went in to land troops in Africa there. I think the Germans were trying to take over or get into that area. We were trying to prevent them from getting in there. So we went over there and we sunk a couple of French and Italian destroyers that the Germans had got from them from taking over their cities and their countries."

His ship is hit

"At that time, we got hit twice by a shore battery," Holland said. "One went straight through our American flag. And when you went into battle -- which you still do today -- they use an oversized flag, and one of them went straight through the middle of the flag -- left a big old hole in it. The other two hits we got, one was on the port side and one on the starboard side: one was forward and one was aft. But, thank God, it was on a battleship, and they're covered with armor from just about No. 1 turret back and No. 3 turret forward, so we was able to get back."

The Pacific 

"We came across the Atlantic Ocean in three days flat. Back in that time, that was unheard of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. That's fast," Holland recalled. "We went straight into Norfolk. We got our ammo resupplied and supplies. We got all the equipment we needed, replaced people that we didn't have, and we left for (the) Panama Canal. And I think it was about three days later or four days later, we are in the Pacific Ocean headed for Hawaii.

"I remember we went out and got into the Pacific after we left Pearl Harbor. We had a captain named Capt. Redmond, and he says, ‘I want to tell you men something. We are in the Pacific now.' He says, 'We're going to hit every damn island out here before we go back to the United States,' and I believe we did. We stayed out there 26 months the first time, and we covered just about every island out there. We were very fortunate. We generally outran the Japanese Fleet. We outmaneuvered them. We took advantage of their faults and their wrongdoings. And then we came back after 26 months to Bremington, Washington. The ship had a quick going-over for 30 days, and we went back out there again." 

Vietnam

"I went to Vietnam on an aircraft carrier. Had quite a tour over there," Holland said. "We stayed over there for 10 months. That was the only time I went into Vietnam. I didn't come back on the ship. They flew me back. I flew back into Pearl Harbor, and then Pearl Harbor into San Francisco, and then back into Jacksonville."

It took time before Holland spoke about war

"I didn't want to talk about it," Holland said. "It was just, there were times out there that you stayed so long that you said, ‘Hell, I ain't never going to get back,' because you stayed so long out there. A 26-month tour of duty for anybody is a long time to be away," he said. "I never even talked to my mother and my father and my brothers and sisters." 

Holland gets emotional talking about his time in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, but he did make it a point during our conversation to talk about his pride and honor.

"I'm very proud to be able to do that and honored because if you ever go out to one of these cemeteries like Arlington or out here on U.S. 1 or anywhere where they have a military cemetery, you really feel it. And that's one of the things that I feel now," Holland said. "I really believe that... really the highlight of my life is being in the service. I really enjoyed it. I met a heck of a lot of good people in there and a lot of them gave up a lot."

He said his children are really the reason he opened up.

"My boys, they kind of kept picking me and picking me," he said. "I began to loosen up a little bit and start telling them about some of the details that happened. Some of the things that we did, and what have you.

"I still don't talk. I'm talking to you because I know that I've had a good life. I've been here a good while, and I want somebody to know this before I go."

Not much time left

At the age of 93, Holland is in a new battle. He has cancer and it's a battle doctors don't believe he'll win.

The doctor told him: "You could be (gone) within six months or it could be a year, so let’s figure it's going to be somewhere in between that."

"I think (faith) is carrying me through pretty good," Holland said. "The stress that I'm on is not that bad. Like I told the doctor, it isn't my illness that's worrying me, it was the loss of my wife."

Holland lost his wife just over a year ago. While sitting next to his three children during our conversation, his pain from losing her was evident.

"She was with me for 69 years. She, she, she was the one that made this family," Holland said. "I just went out there and did a little work, but let me tell you something, it takes a hell of a good woman to put up with that."

Holland said he wasn't the only one who served while he was in the military. He says his entire family served with him, with his wife leading the way.

"I remember one time we were at a wedding, and we're coming out from the wedding, and a newsma, like you, says, ‘Hey, Miss Holland, how did you and your husband stay together so long?' She said, ‘Heck, that's easy. He stayed gone all the time. I didn't have no problem,'" Holland laughed. 

'If you've got family, you've got life'

Serving in the military was important to Holland, but family is everything to him.   

"I'm a family man. I believe family is the greatest thing you can have. If you've got family, you've got life," he said. "You can live and enjoy your life with family. Don't ever turn your back on your family."

Holland's three children credit him for who they are today.

"Our family is blessed," said his son, Jerry Holland.

You may be familiar with Jerry. He's Duval County's property appraiser and, before that, served as supervisor of elections for a decade. He credits his father for setting him on the right path.

"It's called the Greatest Generation. We understand why," Jerry said. "What I've seen in my life is just, what a work ethic, you know, knowing how hard he's worked."

Chuck Holland is Charles' oldest son and got emotional talking about the respect he has for his dad, too.

"The pride I got from my dad helped me through life, made me a better person,"  Chuck said.

The youngest is Jacquie, Charles' only daughter. She's been a school teacher for decades, and her father is her mentor. Knowing her father may soon be gone is difficult, but she and her other siblings say they truly feel blessed.

"We've always been very close, so that's what gets me through it each day, knowing that I'm so lucky to have my dad to have lived to 93," Jacquie said. "He's a very strong man in his faith, has always been the most important thing, and he definitely loves his country. And he's just so proud to have served in the Navy. Being that I'm a teacher, we have a lot of military students that, you know, it's just I'm so proud to say my dad served 32 years in the Navy."

"It's been emotional," Jerry said. "My dad asked me to go with him to pick out the uniform that he'll be buried in -- in fact, we brought it today. So that's emotional when you know you're doing something that's going to be, you know, what he wants done -- and knowing that that's going to be the last thing that you're probably going to see him in."

Jerry said his personal bucket list includes a trip to Boston Harbor, where his dad's ship, the USS Massachusetts, rests. He wants the whole family to go aboard to experience -- even just a little -- of what his father experienced.

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