As the 4th of July approaches, I want to recognize some family members who served in World War Two. I have always been fascinated by war and especially D-Day. Every year I get my D-Day haircut and when I was at my sickest, I looked to what our guys did in Normandy for inspiration. I don’t have much desire to visit France — except that I want to visit the Normandy beaches and our cemetery there.
Two of my father’s cousins served in the war. One was a sergeant in a financial unit and at one point he was attached to Patton’s headquarters. Another was a P-51 pilot in China. His plane went down and he was reported as MIA but it turned out he survived. (For both of these guys, I need to do more research. Both survived the war. One is still living today.) I have more distant relatives who served as well. They were not as lucky as my first cousins once removed. One was swept overboard and died in the Pacific. Another died in an air incident but I do not know the details. Another was killed on April 7, 1945 while flying his B-29 over Tokyo on his 22nd bombing mission.
But today I want to especially single out Sergeant James Alvin Holt. I came across his story recently as I was doing genealogical research. James was born on March 2, 1918. His grandfather and my great-great grandfather were brothers. When the United States entered the war, James Holt entered the army, joining the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Armored Division.
The 3rd AD arrived in England on September 15, 1943, and trained near Liverpool and Bristol as the invasion of France loomed. D-Day was June 6, 1944, and the 3rd AD was transported to Normandy in support of the invasion on June 24. The 3rd AD had been training for two and half years. It was days away from its first experience in combat.
The 3rd AD did not fully engage in the fighting until July 9th. But they first saw action on June 29th in Villiers-Foussard outside St. Lo. Elements of the 3rd AD were assigned the task of pushing back a German salient, an action which prompted a tank and infantry counterattack by one of the best German units in Normandy, the Panzer Lehr Division.
A 3rd AD artilleryman described the terrain of Villiers-Foussard: “This pan of Normandy is the bocage country of apple orchards, small fields with high earthen hedgerows, and sunken roads. German infantry could get good defensive positions with overhead cover from artillery air bursts by digging into the hedgerows. Due to the nature of the terrain tanks have limited mobility and visibility is limited making artillery fire adjustments difficult. Also an infantry company commander on the attack could find it very difficult to know the location of his platoons.”
While only a few members of the 3rd AD saw action at Villiers-Foussard on June 29th, it seems that 26 year-old Sergeant James A. Holt was one of them. I don’t know exactly what happened next but Sergeant Holt is listed as killed in action on June 30, 1944, sixty-four years ago today. The 3rd AD does not seem to have seen fighting on the 30th, so my theory is that Sergeant Holt died of wounds sustained the day before. It’s also possible that he died in some sort of accident on the 30th, though he was awarded the Purple Heart. Perhaps he was wounded in the American attack on the German salient or perhaps he was wounded in the Panzer Lehr Division’s counterattack. I have visions of a Kasserine Pass type of situation with very experienced German troops taking on this green American division.
When I look at my family tree and I see branch after branch stretching from the distant past to the present, it’s heartbreaking to see only blank space below James Holt’s name. That blank space shows the lingering cost of war. He never married and never had kids. And those kids never had kids. All those people never born, their absence is the evidence of loss.
So far, I’ve only been able to put together a rough outline of what happened to him and to the 3rd AD at Villiers-Foussard. But I do know I have someone to visit when I finally make it to Normandy. Sergeant James A. Holt is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in France.