Traverse City Record-Eagle


November 14, 2011

WWI legend's father was national, local hero

TRAVERSE CITY — Capt. George Holliday lost a son to war, but he was a World War I hero in his own right.

A troop transport physician aboard the Powhatan, he earned national headlines and even a spot in U.S. news reels in January 1920 for staying on a leaking transport ship in the North Atlantic rather than board rescue vessels with 271 passengers, mostly military and U.S. embassy officials, back to ports in New York and Hoboken, N.J.

He was the Powhatan's only doctor, he said. It was his job to stay with the crew of 150 men as they worked to keep the ship afloat in storm-tossed seas during its 300-mile tow to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for repairs.

A jammed ash ejector in the ship's bottom caused the leak on Jan. 18, flooding the boiler and engineer rooms and knocking out power and heat. Passengers used candles and oil lamps and sat around an oil stove in the main saloon to keep warm, the New York Times reported. Many were seasick as the boat drifted and lurched powerless in mountainous seas, gale-force winds, a blizzard and zero weather the first few days before tow lines could be attached by other ships standing by after the initial distress call.

Holliday made light of the eight-day "drama of the sea" in a letter to his wife, Jennifer, the Record-Eagle reported. "It was just like camping out in mid-winter on the top of Ramsdell's Hill," he wrote.

But Powhatan passengers getting off the rescue vessels told reporters that Holliday worked day and night with little sleep to prevent disease from breaking out aboard ship. He also helped keep passengers in good spirits by organizing "lollipop parties" for the nine children aboard and "sings" for the adults, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Back home in Traverse City, Holliday was a local hero for other reasons.

He was 50 when he was called up as a Naval Militia reserve surgeon on April 9, 1917, three days after the United States declared war on Germany. He left on April 11 and later transferred to the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

He wrote 350 letters over the course of the war — 90 percent of them to his family.

In 1918, after learning that his son, Lt. Harry Holliday, had been wounded in France, he asked to be assigned to transport ships in the hopes of getting to France to see Harry, who died of infected wounds months before his concerned father could travel there.

He went anyway. If he could not see his son, he still could see the place near Chateau-Thierry where Harry was wounded. He could meet the nurse who sat with Harry in his final hours and some of the soldiers who served with Harry. He could visit the hospital where Harry died and the American cemetery where he was buried with 496 other U.S. soldiers. He could even ask permission to sleep in Harry's hospital room.

And, finally, he could write home, describing it all to his grieving wife and daughters Margaret and Dorothy.

On April 1, 1919, he wrote about visiting "Miss Patmore," the Red Cross nurse who sat with Harry during his last two hours, changing his pillows, giving him water, lemonade and "other lovely things."

"Harry did not suffer, and she said everybody dearly loved him and he loved everybody who did for him." Holliday also included a picture and placed a red mark under the window where Harry's bed stood.

"I had a wonderful time meeting the men who fought with Harry," he wrote on Aug. 21, 1919. "As soon as they found out that I was Lt. Holliday's Father, the boys who were with him gathered around, and of course, they all had a wonderful word for him. One "¦ was right beside him when Harry was first wounded and helped carry him in a sort of a dug-out where Harry remained directing his platoon all the morning."

On Nov. 19, 1919, Holliday wrote about the Distinguished Service Cross Harry had been awarded after his death. "When you get it, put it on and wear it proudly," he told his wife.

Dr. George Arthur Holliday died during World War II on October 29, 1942, in the same month his son died 24 years before.

He was 76, a local physician often called the "Baby Doctor" because he had delivered so many Traverse City children since starting his practice in 1904. He was remembered as the city public health officer, who in 1924 during an outbreak of 140 typhoid cases, persuaded hesitant city commissioners to chlorinate city water. He was a 40-year member of the Methodist church and a long-time choir director. Members of the Bowen-Holliday American Legion Post No. 35 considered him their historian and patron.

Born into a family of nine boys in Myrtle, Ontario, in 1866, he came to Traverse City in 1887 after high school at age 18. He graduated from the University of Michigan dentistry school in 1890. He practiced dentistry for 13 years and when he had saved enough money decided to study medicine at the Detroit College of Medicine, graduating in 1904.

In 1921, his leg was amputated and fitted with an artificial leg after a car accident on the way to a football game in Muskegon.

The Record-Eagle called him "Traverse City's most ardent sports fan," the man who introduced football to the boys of Traverse City. At the football game the night after his death, the Traverse City High School band formed the letter "H" and stood at attention while superintendent Glenn Loomis read a tribute to "Uncle Art."

"I saw Doc at the station the other night as he watches his boys, for they were all his boys, leaving for services," Loomis said. "The tears welled in his eyes as he no doubt thought of a day in 1917 when he saw his own son waving good-bye from those same car windows. Said he as he turned to me: 'They will win again, but at what a cost. We must back them to the limit. We will not let them down."

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