FLORENCE, S.C. – On July 20, 1943, Sgt. John Charlton Holladay, a 31-year-old Florence Marine, was killed in action by a sniper during World War II.
After many answerless years, the Holladay family accepted that his body was unlikely to be found and returned to the United States.
In fact, the body was declared unrecoverable in 1949 by the American Graves Registration Service.
So imagine the family’s surprise when, more than 70 years after their loved one's death, they learned the Marine Corps was searching for DNA from their family to identify an assortment of human remains found in 2012 by a local on New Georgia Island in the British Solomon Islands off the South Pacific Ocean.
“It’s amazing, and it’s a long time coming,” said Jack Holladay, the nephew whose DNA was used to confirm Holladay’s identity. “We are all just head over heels.”
Jack lives in Florida but grew up in Florence. He never met his uncle but heard many stories about a man who loved the outdoors, his family and his country.
“They told us stories of our Uncle Charlton (he went by John for military purposes), and it was as if we grew up with him,” Jack said. “If he had walked through the door and flashed his smile and his wit, we would have recognized him. We were that fond of the stories of him.”
Back into time
Sgt. John Charlton Holladay graduated from what was once Florence High School and went to work for Palmetto Nursery in Florence. He later worked for the Dorothy Green Shop, a floral shop he built and helped open with Green.
When Holladay first heard that the United States had declared war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he had just completed a paddling adventure down the Big Pee Dee River in a flat bottom boat.
He loved the outdoors but felt a duty to serve his country.
“You know, he was that kind of guy,” said another nephew, Dan Holladay of Florence. “When he finally got to Georgetown, that’s when he found out war had been declared. So he took off and came home and joined. I mean, it’s kind of neat.”
While in the Marine Corps, he was a member of Edson’s Raiders, the 1st Marine Raider Battalion led by Merritt “Red Mike” Edson.
The group is said to have been one of the first U.S. special operations forces to form and see combat in World War II.
This, too, was a testament to his strength and courage, Jack said.
“He was somewhat of an amazing individual; certainly in life, and I think he was a good Marine,” Jack said. “’Course, he volunteered for one of the roughest duty assignments in the Marine Corps with Edson’s Raiders.”
It was a treat when the family discovered “Edson’s Raiders,” a book by Joseph Alexander. In it, they were able to confirm much of what they already knew about Holladay, who is specifically mentioned in several instances.
Bill Holladay, a third nephew, said he went through the book with a fine comb, marking down each place where his uncle was mentioned.
“They spoke highly of him and his ability to be able to shoot," Bill said. "And he had named his rifle like Daniel Boone. … If you had ever been in the military, you could almost be where he was at.”
Holladay was also an accomplished archer who made his own bows. He shot with a long bow, Jack said, not the compound bows that many archers use now.
“One person says he was a state archery champ, and I have a newspaper article from his memorial service that says he was the second best archer in the state,” Jack said.
What really happened
From records, stories and letters from Holladay's fellow servicemen, the Holladay family has been able to put together a fairly clear picture of what happened when Holladay was killed.
Lt. Robert C. Kennedy, the platoon leader of Holladay's company, was with Holladay at the time of his death. In a letter written to Maggie Corbett, Holladay's aunt, Kennedy details the moments preceding and following his death.
"On the 20th of July we set out to take the other stronghold at Bairoko Harbor. We fought our way through three Japanese defense lines, and it was while going through the last one that John met his death," he writes.
As platoon sergeant, Holladay took the rear position in the line of men running from Japanese fire. It was then that Holladay was shot.
"As we reached down to pick him up, John looked up at me, shook his head a little, gave me a smile and died," Kennedy writes in his letter to Corbett. "He had been shot directly in the heart and died easily and quickly."
The Holladay family received solace from Kennedy, as well as from Vin Cassidy, another Marine who fought with Edson's Raiders.
Cassidy came to visit Holladay's mother, Elizabeth Corbett Holladay, at her home in Paxville, S.C., after Holladay's death and gave her an account of what happened. He was a poet and also brought several poems he had written after his friend's death. Some of his poetry is also in Alexander's book.
Down to the science
Investigators with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command interviewed Dr. Ronald Ziru, a retired dentist, in 2012. Ziru owns the majority of the land that makes up the Dragon’s Peninsula, the area in New Georgia where Holladay was killed.
Ziru said he leased the logging rights on his land nearly a decade before. The clearing of the land exposed numerous foxholes, which appeared to contain human remains and American artifacts.
In February 2015, an investigation team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) canvassed Bairoko Village and received some of these assumed-to-be human remains from an islander, Timothy Fanai, who said he recovered the remains in a swamp in Bairoko near Leland Lagoon.
Jack heard from another relative that the Marine Corps was searching for family members to provide DNA samples, and he volunteered.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” he said. “They sent me a DNA kit. I did the swab and sent it back to the Marine Corps.”
With a simple mouth swab from Jack, the teeth and other skeletal remains were positively identified as Holladay’s in November 2015, according to a medical examiner’s report from the DPAA.
Bringing him home
Holladay returned to the States on Friday and will be buried Monday in the Florence National Cemetery in a graveside service with full military honors.
Family deaths are mournful, but after more than seven decades, the Holladays are simply grateful to have their beloved family member back on American soil.
“I don’t think it’s a sorrowful day. It’s a happy, proud day,” Jack said. “It’s sad in the fact that his mother and father and loved ones had always wanted him home, and it would have been wonderful if they could have found him and brought him home in ’43 and ’44.”
And to make the ceremony all the more sweet, it is taking place on what would have been Holladay’s 104th birthday.
“A lot has transpired over the last 72 years," Jack said. "We’re just elated that we get to witness his homecoming and to bring him back to Florence and do a proper interment at the National Cemetery.
“Like I told my cousins, I’ve been shouting it from the rooftops. My neighbors are getting tired of hearing me.”