GULF COAST WAR MEMORIES
HILDA HOLM CYPHERS
Sister of 1st Lt. John A. Holm
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“The Star in the Window. The Knock on the Door”
Hilda Holm Cyphers was a young teenager living in her hometown of Pensacola when the war began. “It was an exciting time,” she recalls. “All the boys were joining the Navy and the Army. Everyone was so proud. We would have going-away parties in the neighborhood. Everyone would come and it was just fun, fun, fun. Of course, I had no idea that all of these people were going to be killed.” Once the war was underway and had reached global proportions, Cyphers understood the cost of war. “We started losing people and it was very sad.”
Cyphers’ brothers both joined the military. Her brother John joined the Army and her brother Reinhardt joined the Navy. She recalls that those were very tense times because the news from the front lines was slow to reach the home front. There was no television to inform Americans back home, so letters were the most reliable form of communication to learn news of loved ones overseas. The letters contained news of daily life in the Army and the Navy, describing the food, job duties, and weather reports. Military personnel were restricted about what they could reveal and the letters were often censored. Both John and Reinhardt wrote numerous letters home, which were a blessing for Cyphers’ mother, Annie Holm. John’s letters were particularly upbeat and happy, describing the long voyage aboard ship to the Philippine Islands and Okinawa and humorously relaying that he had been at sea so long that the felt like he had joined the Navy instead of the Army.
His letters stopped once he reached Okinawa. Perhaps his mother never really knew the danger and the horror they were facing on the island. John Holm was killed in Okinawa on April 21, 1945. He was only 26 years old. The following is an excerpt from the book “US Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific – Okinawa: The Last Battle” Chapter IX “The Fall of the First Shuri Defense Ring” by Appleman, Burns, Gugeler & Stevens which describes how Lieutenant Holm was killed:
The Japanese, blinded by the smoke, apparently did not see the advancing troops until they were on the lower slopes of Ouki Hill. Heavy mortar fire then began to fall, threatening to break up the American attack. At the critical moment 1st Lt. John A. Holm and S/Sgt. James R. W. McCarthy, the platoon leader and the platoon sergeant of the leading platoon, scrambled on toward the top of the hill, yelling to the others to follow. Individually and in groups of two's and three's the men responded, and a feeble line was built up just under the crest. It was none too soon, for a counterattack struck immediately from the other side. Both Holm and McCarthy were among those killed, but the Japanese were repulsed and lost thirty-five killed. Just before dark a platoon from Company F, 184th Infantry, joined the little group on Ouki Hill from the American lines 400 yards to the rear. Tanks brought supplies to the isolated men, and halftracks evacuated the wounded. The Japanese shelled the forward face of the hill throughout the night. Five men were killed and eighteen wounded, all in their foxholes; the two company commanders and several platoon leaders were among the casualties. Before dawn the enemy made another counterattack; although some Japanese came close enough to throw satchel charges, the attack was repulsed.
Cyphers recalls the many houses around Pensacola with flags in the window, bearing a bright red stripe around the border with a blue star in the middle of the flag. The blue star indicated that someone from that household was serving in the armed forces. Some households, such as the Holm household, displayed flags bearing more than one star – one star for each service member. Each star represented someone from that household – a son, a husband, a brother – who was fighting in WWII in the Navy, the Marines or the Army. The service flag was first displayed in the front windows of homes during WWI to signify a son or husband serving in the military. The flag quickly became known as the “son in service” flag with each blue star indicating one family member. During World War II, the Department of War issued specifications of the manufacture of the flag and established guidelines indicating when or where the flag could be flown. The blue star was covered or replaced with a gold star to indicate that the family member was killed in action. The blue star represents hope and pride, while the gold star represents sacrifice to the cause of liberty and freedom.
“There were so many gold stars in windows all over town,” Cyphers recalled. “It was very sad.” The sadness hit home for Cyphers and her family in a way that she could not imagine.
“It was April of 1945. One particular afternoon, I was home alone at our house on LaRua Street. My mother and my sister had gone to the movies,” Cyphers remembers. “There was a knock at the door, and when I answered the door, there were uniformed soldiers at the door, delivering a telegram.” The telegram contained the news that Cypher’s older brother John had been killed in action in Okinawa. The news was devastating for the family. John was buried in Okinawa and his body was returned to the United States after the war ended and was buried in St. John’s cemetery in the Holm family plot. John Holm, although an older brother, was very much a father-figure to Cyphers, whose own father had died ten years earlier. “It was absolutely devastating that John was killed in the war,” Cyphers said sadly. “It was hard to believe that he would not be coming home.”
“I was working at the San Carlos Hotel in Pensacola when the news came that the war was finally over,” recalls Cyphers. “What a glorious day! What a celebration! Everyone was thrilled that the war was over. Excitement was in the air. Car horns were honking. People were in the streets. I’ll never forget that.”