WWII veteran turns 100 in the Midlands, recounts time in the Army and boxing career

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Published: Apr. 7, 2023 at 4:04 PM EDT
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IRMO, S.C. (WIS) - The Midlands came together Friday in Irmo to celebrate South Carolina native and World War II veteran John Henry Holladay, Jr. on his 100th birthday.

From flying planes for the U.S. Army to a stint in professional boxing, Holladay has lived a full and interesting life.

Holladay was born in the small town of Gable in Clarendon County on April 7, 1923. A few months later, his family settled in Darlington.

He remembers the days when the milkman made home deliveries and his family purchased 25-pounds of ice every day for their refrigerator. At just 19 years old, he joined the Army in 1943.

“A friend and I were talking and we decided we would go try out for Aviation Cadets,” Holladay said.

A snippet in his autobiography, called “The Autobiography of John Holladay,” revealed they were worried about passing the required eye exam. Two days before the exam at a Georgia Tech vs. Duke University football game in Durham, they bought a bag of carrots and a bottle of whisky bourbon for game refreshments.

They both passed all of the physical exams, including their eye exam, and became official members of the Army AirCorp’s Aviation Cadet Program.

That was the last time he saw his friend, as they went in separate directions during their military career. Holladay said in his autobiography his friend was killed in action.

‘I wasn’t a good pilot’

Holladay went to basic training in Miami before attending basic flight training at Greenville Air Base in Mississippi. There they were taught to fly Vultee BT-13s and BT-15s airplanes, John recalled in his autobiography.

“I wasn’t a good pilot,” Holladay told WIS-TV. “I got lost all of the time flying.”

The first time he flew at night with his instructor didn’t go as planned.

“We came into the airport and he landed, and I landed on top of his airplane,” he said. “He wasn’t happy about that at all.”

Holladay recounted eventually going to Texas to work with glider pilots before he quit flying altogether and transferred to the infantry.

He went to the Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning, Georgia, and became a unit commander. He spent some of his 3-year military career in Italy, where he served in the Air Force Command Headquarters and the 88th Infantry Division.

During his time in the infantry, Holladay told us he was given a closet for an office and became a catch-all of duties.

“I was in a service company and they didn’t have a title for me,” he said.

Holladay explained, “I was the ‘do it all’ person. I had charge of transportation, a prison, the personal label, vacations, just anything.”

He spent time in the office rather than in combat. He took a lot of uneventful patrols, but told WIS-TV about one time in the sky “he didn’t like” when he flew spare and watched his comrades from above in the event they needed help.

Holladay said an enemy plane came in and shot at him.

“I tried to call the captain back, but he didn’t answer,” he said, “so, I shot back.”

They continued to shoot at each other until his combatant took off, he said When asked if that was a scary moment for him, he replied, “I don’t know what being scared is, really.”

‘People used to beat me up’

According to his autobiography, he enrolled at the University of South Carolina on the G.I. Bill and became a member of the boxing team after leaving the Army.

Holladay first took up boxing when he was in high school. The hobby was born more out of necessity than for fun.

“People used to beat me up, so I joined the boxing team to try to learn to take care of myself,” he said.

Holladay said he’s very skilled at the sport thanks to his instructor.

“He said I was the hardest working person he ever had at learning the skills ... In high school, I won state championship in my weight twice.”

He said his professional boxing record was 21-0. A S.C. House Resolution congratulating John and his wife on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2008 said he was also the Army light-heavyweight champion and his efforts brought the Boxing Commission into existence in South Carolina.

After college, Holladay said he eventually ended up working for South Carolina National Bank, where he retired after 27 years.

Holladay met his wife Laura J. Holladay in the 1950s after leaving the Army. They were married for 63 years until she passed away in January 2022. Holladay has four children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

The key to staying alive for a century, Holladay says, is exercise.

“I was always in good health, always had a good physical condition, always took a lot of exercise,” he said.

Holladay has advice to the generations after him.

“Know what you’re supposed to do, that’s the most important thing. Learn what you’re supposed to do and then do it.”

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