Valor Friday

| March 31, 2023

Consolidated B-24H-1-CF (S/N 42-64435), taken June 26, 1944. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Earlier this week David sent me a story tip about the remains of US Army Air Forces Sergeant John Holoka being positively identified. He had died in 1944 and his family didn’t learn about the circumstances of his death for decades. Thankfully they now have the closure they deserve, but let’s look at Sergeant Holoka and the men on his plane.

USAAF serial number 42-94826 was an H model B-24 Liberator. The Liberator was the most produced heavy bomber of the war, though it was often overshadowed by it’s contemporary, the second most produced heavy bomber, the B-17. The H model was a major revamp of the Liberator, most notably incorporating a swiveling gun turret in the nose of the aircraft, where the earlier models had been vulnerable to head-on attack.

42-94826 was built by Ford Motor Company at the famous Willow Run plant outside of Detroit. From the serial number’s prefix of “42” we know that the aircraft was received by the Army in 1942. It was soon ferried to Europe, where it was based at RAF Halesworth (also known as Holton) on the far eastern tip of England, just a few miles from the English Channel.

RAF Halesworth was constructed as a bomber base in 1942-1943. The base’s first tenants were the USAAF’s 56th Fighter Group. It would go on to become one of the 8th Air Force’s most distinguished fighter units. Some of America’s top aces in the European Theater, like Francis “Gabby” Gabreski and Robert S Johnson, flew out of Halesworth in the latter half of 1943 and into early 1944.

The 489th Bomb Group, flying Liberators, would push the fighters out of the facility in May 1944 and would call it home for the remainder of the war. Within the 489th Bomb Group was 42-94826, which was part of the 844th Bomb Squadron. They were all part of the Mighty Eighth Air Force.

Commanding 42-94826 was Second Lieutenant William Bailey Montgomery. They called the plane “Wolf Pack.” Montgomery was a 24 year old from Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Flying alongside Montgomery was Flight Officer John J Crowther from New York. Behind them was flight engineer Technical Sergeant John Holoka of Pennsylvania. Along for the ride were seven other men; two waist gunners, the tail gunner, a ball turret gunner, the navigator, the bombardier, and the radio operator.

The 489th BG started offensive operations on 30 May 1944 with a mission hitting Germany. This also meant that they were fresh and ready to support the Invasion of Normandy a week later. With a base of operations only eight miles from the Channel, they flew almost daily missions for the next several weeks.

The crew of 42-94826 had already flown some number of missions when they took off on 22 June 1944 for a bombing attack on nearby St Cyr, France, almost due south of Halesworth. They were among a large number of bombers hitting the small airfield there with 126 tons of high explosives.

While the men on the Liberators didn’t face any enemy fighters on this mission, flak over the target was intense. It damaged most of the aircraft. The 489th BG had been joined by 15 ships of the 392nd Bomb Group. All but two of the 392nd BG’s Liberators were damaged over St Cyr.

Among the many aircraft damaged was Wolf Pack. The plane was so severely damaged that the only operative control surfaces were one rudder (the Liberator had a twin tail configuration) and a single elevator. That meant they had no roll control and only limited pitch and yaw control.

Somehow Montgomery and his team were able to turn the mighty bomber back towards friendly territory. They limped towards the coast of England. Coming in near Brighton, Montgomery ordered his crew to bail out.

As they approached the southern coast of the British Isles, waist gunner Staff Sergeant Aaron Roper was the first man out. Sergeant Joseph Foley, the radio operator, jumped right after him as did ball turret gunner Staff Sergeant Pearl Toothman Jr. They were all in the rear compartment. The men in the nose of the aircraft, bombardier Second Lieutenant D. M. Henderson jumped out first, with navigator First Lieutenant Herbert King following soon after.

All of these men landed in the channel, with the exception of Lieutenant King who landed on the beach. Those who got their feet wet were pulled out of the drink by launches.

Coming over the coast, the final two men in the rear compartment were the last to bail. Waist gunner Staff Sergeant Richard Rodriguez and tailgunner Staff Sergeant Edwin Sumner came down about one mile inland.

Aircraft commander and pilot Montgomery remained at the controls, determined to bring his plane home. His co-pilot Flight Officer Crowther and their flight engineer Technical Sergeant Holoka stood with the valiant young officer and elected to ignore his order to parachute to safety.

For reasons unknown, but most likely related to the massive damage the aircraft had already sustained, the plane crashed. About 9pm a young farm boy was getting into bed. He heard a “thunderous scream of a plane in a power dive.” Moments later, the dull thud of an impact could be heard/felt. Being only 10 years old, he had to wait to sneak out to go check it out.

The next morning, the wreckage was smoldering enough that ammunition from the guns was continuing to cook off. The family dog had returned with the severed forearm of one of the flyers. The boy’s father took the bracelet off the arm, turning it over to the police, and they buried what remained of the American airman with the other remains. The boy recalled that the crash site remained hot for about ten days with ammo sporadically popping off underground.

In the final aftermath, the boy was able to examine the wreck. By his estimation, the aircraft came into the ground nearly vertical, with one wing striking the ground first. The largest piece of wreckage was only about 6’ by 2’. The vast majority of the airframe (and the men within it) was buried by the force of the impact. It wasn’t unearthed until the mid-1970s.

The farm boy remembers that at least three of the survivors from the crew were able to visit the site where their brave brothers had gone down while trying to bring Wolf Pack home. All of the survivors, thanks to the efforts of the flight deck crew, were unharmed. They were all returned to duty soon after.

The remains of Crowther were reported as recovered almost immediately. It’s reasonable to think that the arm with the bracelet that was located was positively identified as his. Meanwhile, Montgomery and Hokola were listed as missing in action, failed to return from mission.

Back home, Hokola’s family was notified of his death, but given no details. They weren’t told where he was interred or even how he had died. For decades, the family wrote to authorities in vain to try and glean more information.

In 2017, a great nephew of Hokola’s, Keith Levatino was contacted by the Army. They were going to excavate a crash site at the Park Farm in Arundel, England. Remains of two men were recovered from the wreckage (along with other artifacts such as a flak jacket). With Levatino’s submission of DNA, they were finally able to, just this week, definitively confirm that Tech Sergeant Hokola and Second Lieutenant Mongomery have been returned.

Levatino has since been in contact with the farm owners (still owned by the same family that owned it during the war) and with descendants of Montgomery. They’ve all gotten some much needed closure on the final flight of 42-94826. Levatino says he hopes that “my grandmother and her relatives now have the peace that they were looking for all those years.”

Holoka will be buried in Portage, Pennsylvania, on May 1, 2023, the Department of Defense has indicated.

Both Montgomery and Hokola are listed as having each received the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster. Montgomery, Hokola, and Crowther were posthumously recipients of the Purple Heart, since they were brought down by enemy fire.

Crew of 42-94826 “Wolf Pack” 2nd Lieutenant D. M. Henderson positively identified front row second from left. Flight Officer John j. Crowther front row far right. 2nd. Lieutenant William B. Montgomery front row second from right. 2nd Lieutenant Herbert K. King front row first left. Staff Sergeant Richard M. Rodriguez (believed) second row far right. Others as yet remain unidentified. Courtesy Kenneth Whitehead



Category: Air Force, Historical, No Longer Missing, Valor, We Remember

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Brave men all.


Tech Sgt John Holoka, Jr.

Rest In Peace, Sir.


Never Forget.

Bring Them All Home.

Thank You, Mason.



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That such men lived. Salute!

Another great story, Mason. Thanks!


Artillery bursting all around and no hole to take refuge in. Frightening indeed! I once knew a man who was a navigator on a B-17. He told me of an 88 that passed thru his plane from bottom to top and didn’t explode because it was time or altitude fused. After the first flight thru that it had to be very hard to climb aboard for each of the following flights.
Welcome home Sgt. Holoka.

RGR 4-78

Welcome Home.