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Community Advocacy Organization

"Unsung Hero: The Remarkable Life of Cpl. Robert Holt"

Updated: May 14


Robert Holt

Courtesy Photo-Cpl. Robert Holt

 

It isn’t until you see Robert Holt laugh with gleeful abandon at the horrors of war and the evils of racism that you can begin to understand this 105-year-old veteran.


Drafted into World War II as a 23-year-old college student, Holt was sent to Germany in the mid-1940s. He served in an all-Black unit as part of a segregated Army. The German citizens treated him fine, he explains, but many of his fellow U.S. soldiers were openly hostile, kicking him out of bars and hurling racial slurs.


On his first day of combat, he was driving a truck on the outskirts of Berlin when he hit a landmine. The vehicle was destroyed, his passenger broke his foot, but Holt escaped unharmed. His wallet, keys and other belongings were scattered about. He begins to giggle as he recalls the reaction of the other soldiers in the convoy.


“They all shouted, ‘Uh-oh! They got Holt! They got Holt!’ They came running back, but then they saw that I was up and walking around.” At this point, he pauses for several moments, eyes clenched, shoulders shaking with laughter. Then: “Heck, they didn’t want to help me. They wanted to get my money and my wife’s address and go through what I had.”

The next day, another truck from his unit hit a landmine. That driver was also spared, but the passenger, a lieutenant, was killed. Holt turns serious at this memory. “That shook me worse than being hit by a landmine myself,” he says.


Robert Holt

 Courtesy Photo-Army Cpl. Robert Holt during World War II

 

Holt doesn’t hear too well these days, but his memory of his time in war is remarkable. And somehow, he laughs in the face of it. The man has always been blessed with a lively sense of humor, family and friends say.


Holt survived a bloody war in Europe. He survived a lifetime of discrimination. Maybe laughter is his way of coping.


He’s also refreshingly authentic. When the war ended in Germany, there was talk of sending his unit to Japan. “I told myself, ‘I ain’t going to no Japan.’ And I meant it. I’d go to jail before I went to Japan.”


Luckily, Japan surrendered before Holt had to make that decision and he and the remaining members of his unit were sent home, where he received an honorable discharge. Looking back, he’s rightfully proud of his service. Holt served in the 349th Field Artillery Battalion from 1941 to 1945, rising to the rank of corporal. He spent several years training fellow troops at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, before being sent to war-torn Germany for a year.

“I wouldn’t trade nothing for that experience,” he says. “But I sure wouldn’t go through it again,”


A man of faith

Holt was born on his family’s farm in central Missouri in 1918. That was the year World War I ended, the Spanish Flu killed 675,000 Americans and U.S time zones were established.

Some days, Holt worked in the fields from sunup until sundown for a dollar a day. He managed to graduate from high school and attend college in Missouri for several years, hoping to be an architect. But people would mock his educational pursuits and compare him to his older brother, Finis, a high achiever who became a member of the famed Tuskegee Airman, and Holt eventually dropped out.


On the advice of a friend, Holt moved to Albion in south central Michigan to work at Albion Malleable Iron Co. The company paid 68 cents an hour and shifts were only eight hours a day. Holt worked there for 35 years, his tenure interrupted only by his military service.

Holt married a woman from Albion, LaVerne, and they had seven children (three boys and four girls). They were married for 54 years until LaVerne passed. He married his second wife, Ethel, in 1998, and together they live in the Albion home Holt bought in 1949 for $7,000.

Robert Holt

Courtesy Photo-Ethel and Robert Holt at their home in Albion


Robert Holt will turn 106 on April 30, 2024. He had a big birthday last year in Atlanta with family, so this year’s celebration will be lower-key: dinner out with Ethel and maybe a couple of friends.


A week later, on May 7, Holt will fly to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial as a guest of the nonprofit Mid-Michigan Honor Flight. He’s believed to be the oldest veteran to ever take the flight.


While Holt liked to fish and hunt when he was younger, these days he enjoys watching sports, playing online solitaire, and taking well-earned naps.

“I meditate a lot while I’m playing solitaire,” Holt says. “And a lot of things run through my mind while I mediate: Army, school, all those things.” He pauses, his ever-present smile widening. “And then,” he says, “I go to sleep.”


He’s also a man of faith. He and Ethel attend Grace Temple Church in Albion regularly. Holt believes in living a principled life.

“I tell everyone that I’ve tried to live by God’s commandments,” he says. “And it’s gotten me this far.”

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