Electrician's Mate First Class William Howell Holmes
- Unit: USS Wahoo
- Service Number: 2623165
- Date of Birth: February 21, 1919
- Entered the Military: October 18, 1938
- Date of Death: October 11, 1943
- Hometown: Benson, North Carolina
- Place of Death: La Perouse Strait, off the coast of Japan
- Award(s): Purple Heart, Navy Presidential Unit Citation
- Cemetery: Courts of the Missing. National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawai’i
Mentored by Mr. Taylor Blanton
Cardinal Gibbons High School
The Holmes family was deeply rooted in North Carolina, having lived there since the eighteenth century when many family members immigrated from Ireland.
Joseph C. Holmes, William’s father, was born in 1890 and married Nellie Ryals in 1912. Joseph served in World War I before returning home to work as an independent farmer. He was unable to read or write but did own property.
William Howell Holmes was born on February 2, 1919, in Benson, North Carolina, the third of six children. At age 11, William was able to read, write, and speak English. The family suffered heartbreak when William’s mother, Nellie, died when he was 13 years old.
As William grew up, he likely helped his father on the farm and took care of his younger siblings Oliver, Wade, and Theroldine with the support of his older brothers, Richard and Joseph. He was especially close to his younger brother, Oliver.
After enlisting, William would return to his home only once.
Benson, North Carolina, is a part of Johnston County. It was what many would consider a small town. However, it was located only 22 miles southeast of Raleigh and was situated at a crossroads. It is a mostly rural, agricultural area. The town’s geography between the Neuse River and Cape Fear blessed the town with fertile soil and a temperate climate, and the growth of the community was heavily tied to agriculture.
Around 7,000 men and women would serve in World War II from Johnston County. As men went off to war, women became much more involved in the community, demonstrated by the majority female graduating class in 1942. In addition, many families relocated to cities to work in factories. This left a smaller population tasked with maintaining partially vacant communities.
In March 1942, a munitions truck explosion occurred between Smithfield and Selma (around 20 miles from Benson). Seven people were tragically killed, bringing focus and attention to the war effort. It would become known as the “Catch-Me-Eye” explosion.
During the war, local rationing boards and defensive councils were established to ration materials and encourage wartime participation through war bonds. North Carolina also saw an interest in providing dehydrated vegetables for the U.S. Army. The Piedmont region of North Carolina supported the war primarily through crops.
Shortly after the war ended, in 1949, a three-day festival held annually in September referred to as Mule Days was begun to honor the farming community.
Electrician’s Mate First Class William Holmes enlisted in Raleigh, Johnston County, North Carolina on October 18, 1938. No records indicate that Holmes worked an official job before enlisting. Four Navy Boot Camps existed when Holmes enlisted: in San Diego, California; Bainbridge, Maryland; Newport, Rhode Island; and Great Lakes, Illinois.
After boot camp, Holmes attended a more specialized school to train in his role as an Electrician’s Mate. He would be responsible for operating the ship’s electrical equipment. This includes electrical power generation systems (such as the batteries used on submarines), lighting systems, electrical equipment, and electrical appliances. During a patrol, Holmes could be seen throughout the ship inspecting and managing equipment.
Holmes first served on the USS Raleigh, a light cruiser launched in 1922. Holmes gained valuable experience working on a surface ship.
On September 30, 1941, Holmes transfered to the USS Drayton, a Mahan class destroyer. Everything changed when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in 1941. Although not directly involved in the attack, the Drayton provided fire support for the USS Lexington and assisted in the search for Japanese raiding parties.
On January 17, 1943, Holmes was assigned to the first submarine he would serve on, the USS Silversides (the submarine is currently on display in Muskegon, Michigan). During this time, he earned a promotion from Electrician’s Mate Petty Officer Third Class to Electrician’s Mate Petty Officer Second Class. While on the submarine, Holmes served on patrol in the waters of the South Pacific and Eastern Australia. The Silversides targeted enemy shipping near New Ireland, which was controlled by Japanese Forces.
In June 1943, Holmes was granted leave and returned home to Benson. Newspapers heralded his return, and Holmes was able to unwind and see family for the first time in years. Tragically, he would be recalled to his station earlier than expected.
Holmes was transferred to the USS Wahoo and was joined by five other sailors from the USS Silversides. The Wahoo had a strong reputation as one of the most successful submarines in the American fleet. Under the command of Lieutenant Commander Dudley W. “Mush” Morton, the submarine used highly aggressive and innovative tactics. However, the Wahoo had little luck on their previous patrol and faced chronic problems with its torpedoes.
The submarine departed from Pearl Harbor on its last patrol on September 9, 1943. It would last be seen topping off supplies at Midway Island on September 13. The ship was credited with sinking four ships while on patrol off the coast of Japan, putting Japanese anti-submarine forces on high alert looking for vengeance. On October 11, Japanese forces initiated a combined aerial and depth-charge attack on a submarine spotted near La Perouse Strait. That ship was the USS Wahoo, and it, along with all hands aboard, was never heard from again.
For his extensive service across several vessels, Holmes was awarded the Purple Heart, Navy Expeditionary Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, American Campaign Medal, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Good Conduct Medal, and Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal. Local newspapers mourned the loss of Electrician’s Mate First Class William Holmes when news of his passing arrived, including the Raleigh News and Observer and the Johnstonian-Sun. Although he was far from home while serving, he was not forgotten by the people he left behind, especially his younger brother Oliver Holmes, who spoke fondly of William for the remainder of his life.
In 2006, the U.S. Navy confirmed the wreckage site of the USS Wahoo, which was observed to have a direct bomb hit in the conning tower. The ship’s sacrifice as a part of the Silent Service helped ensure that their loved ones back home would stay safe. The crew of the USS Wahoo, including Electrician’s Mate First Class William Howell Holmes, remain on Eternal Patrol, and will not be forgotten.
The Sacrifice For Freedom®: World War II in the Pacific program has not only given me a once in a lifetime opportunity, it has also instilled into me a passion for learning about our past and the lives of those who are forgotten by many. I was able to connect not only with students willing (and excited) to share their stories and continue learning, but also teachers who were supportive of them and guides/staff who made the trip an amazing experience for everybody.
During my research on Electrician’s Mate First Class William Holmes, I was pushed to learn not only about his life, but also about the community that shaped him. My research has truly given me an appreciation for local history, and how the areas we live in today were shaped by the past and those who have lived here before us. Through roughly 8 months of work, I was able to produce something I would have never thought possible. In the form of a eulogy, I was able to ensure that there will be one less soldier who gave their life for their country and was forgotten. I fully believe that I have left this program as a more fully formed individual driven by a desire to make the world better.
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Donald Lee and Mildred Warren. Photograph. Benson Museum of Local History, Digital NC (830). https://lib.digitalnc.org/record/12431.
Joseph Calvin Holmes. World War I Draft Cards Young Men, 1914-1918. Digital images. https://ancestry.com.
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USS Wahoo (SS-238). Photograph. July 14, 1943. Naval History and Heritage Command (19-N-48937). https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/numerical-list-of-images/nara-series/19-n/19-N-40000/19-N-48937.html.
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William Howell Holmes. Photograph. c.1938-1943. On Eternal Patrol. Courtesy of Paul W. Wittmer, Debbie Wilson, Becky Robertson, and Susan Byrd. https://www.oneternalpatrol.com/holmes-w-h.htm.
William Howell Holmes. U.S. Navy Casualty Books, 1776-1941. Digital images. https://ancestry.com.
World War II Veterans Program. Photograph. Benson Museum of Local History, Digital NC (61). https://lib.digitalnc.org/record/9789.
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“EM1 William Howell Holmes.” Find a Grave. Updated July 6, 2008. Accessed October 26, 2022. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/28091291/william-howell-holmes.
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“USS Wahoo (SS-238).” Naval History and Heritage Command. Last modified December 3, 2020. Accessed May 16, 2022. https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/ships/submarines/silversides-ss-236.html.
“A Very Short History of Johnston County.” Johnston County Heritage Center. Accessed April 12, 2022. www.johnstonnc.com/heritage2/hccontent.cfm?PID=history.
“William Howell Holmes.” HonorStates.org. Accessed March 8, 2022. www.honorstates.org/index.php?id=78467.
“William Howell Holmes.” On Eternal Patrol. Accessed March 6, 2022. https://www.oneternalpatrol.com/holmes-w-h.htm.