John M. ‘Jack’ Holmes, World War II B-24 crewman who later became an engineer, dies

John M. “Jack” Holmes Sr., who flew secret missions during World War II in Europe as an Army Air Corps B-24 crewman, and later became a Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. engineer, died April 22 in his sleep at his Parkville home. He was 95.

Jack Milton Holmes was born in Baltimore and raised on Presbury Street. He was the son of Edward Holmes, a Baltimore Sun worker, and Irene Holmes, a homemaker.

He attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute as a pre-engineering student, but left in the 11th grade to take a job in 1940 at Bartlett & Haywood Co., an iron foundry. There, he operated a milling machine that produced gun carriages.

At 18 he was accepted as an aviation cadet and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 with the hope of becoming a pilot. At various training bases around the country he studied physics, meteorology and flying, then made a series of solo flights.

“He succeeded in school in ways he hadn’t expected before,” said his son, John M. “Jack” Holmes Jr. of Stoneleigh.

While attending flight school at Pine Bluff, Ark., in 1944, he married his high school sweetheart, the former Rita J. “Reet” Owens. The two met at the Walbrook Movie Theater, where he worked as an usher.

The marriage nearly didn’t take place after his commanding officer denied him an overnight pass. However, upon returning from a solo flight in the afternoon, he found a note on his bunk from a sympathetic commandant of cadets who wrote: “The old man has gone duck hunting. Congratulations! Be back by 8 a.m.”

Mr. Holmes was assigned as an armorer aboard a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber, responsible for the airplane’s guns as well as being a top-turret gunner.

“He washed out before becoming a pilot. At that time, a lot of the guys who wanted to be pilots were being washed out because the need for pilots had decreased,” his son said in a telephone interview.

While waiting to fly to Europe with his fellow B-24 crewmen, word arrived at Chatham Field near Savannah, Ga., on Christmas Eve 1944 that his wife had given birth back in Baltimore to their first child, Dianne “Dee” Holmes.

He was anxious to see his wife and new baby, but knew getting a pass was highly unlikely.

“Getting a pass was impossible — so I wrote my own, and headed for the Savannah station,” he said in a family memoir. “An MP [military policeman] asked about my pass, so I knew he knew it was a fake, but he let me go. I didn’t tell him about my daughter. Who would believe it anyway?”

Arriving on Christmas, Mr. Holmes reunited with his wife and was able to hold his baby daughter. It was a short visit, as he had to return to Chatham Field by Christmas night. At Baltimore’s Penn Station, packed with wartime travelers, he was unable to purchase a ticket and was officially AWOL. He was, however, able to hop aboard a slowly moving Silver Meteor streamliner passing through the station. A conductor told him the train would not make a stop, but would slow down around 4 a.m. near Savannah so he could jump off.

He did so, and made his way back to base ”undetected,” he recalled. “Was it worth all of that trouble just to see Reet and my new daughter? Yes, it was great!”

In 1945, Mr. Holmes departed from Chatham Field to Europe.

Mr. Holmes and his crew were assigned to the 15th Air Force’s 885th Bombardment Squadron at Rosignano, Italy, southwest of Florence. Their mission was to drop supplies, weapons and Allied agents to partisan groups behind enemy lines in northern Italy and Yugoslavia. They did not know they were participating in secret Office of Strategic Services night missions aboard the B-24s, some of which were painted black with blacked-out windows.

“The 855th bomb squad was a kind of a secret affair, which we didn’t really know then,” Mr. Holmes recalled in the memoir.

“The bomb bay door had been replaced by a chute through which they dropped supplies and ammunition,” his son said. “Some of the Allied agents were afraid to jump from a plane flying so low.”

If an Allied agent who had jumped into enemy territory was captured, he would be treated as a spy and executed.

The crew “received no explanation or information about the missions … drop targets were usually in mountain valleys lit by a bonfire,” wrote his grandson, Will Holmes of Stoneleigh, who interviewed his grandfather for a school project. “Planes occasionally returned with bullet holes on the top of wings and fuselage.”

“Sometimes we flew so low the mountains were above us and they were shooting down at our plane,” Mr. Holmes said in the memoir. “The charts weren’t always so accurate, so sometimes a mountain wasn’t where the pilot expected it to be.”

A 1945 article in Stars and Stripes reported that the 885th “never dropped a bomb in almost 3,000 sorties.”

Mr. Holmes and his crew were bound for the Pacific Theater when the dropping of the atomic bomb ended the war.

He was discharged in November 1945.

“There was no record of their service … when they spoke to discharging officers,” his son said. “Because the missions were kept off the books and were secret, they had to explain what they had done.”

Mr. Holmes returned to Baltimore, where he went to work for C&P Telephone Co. as an installer. He eventually became an engineer, and during his final years with the company managed a pre-construction planning group that worked with the companies building office towers during Baltimore’s redevelopment.

He retired in 1979.

Mr. Holmes was an accomplished carpenter who learned to repair clocks and built several of them. He liked to play golf at the Longview Golf Course in Timonium and also enjoyed relaxing aboard his cabin cruiser, The Impulse.

He also liked taking trips to the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras and the Shenandoah Valley, and visiting historic sites in the Mid-Atlantic, with his grandson.

Mr. Holmes’ wife of 62 years died in 2006; and his daughter died in 2012.

A Roman Catholic prayer service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Johnson-Fosbrink Funeral Home, 8521 Loch Raven Blvd., Baynesville.

Mr. Holmes is survived by his son and grandson.

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© 2018 The Baltimore Sun

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