Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 13, 2011

Hero's Death: TC's most-honored WWI soldier


— TRAVERSE CITY — Harry Holliday had everything going for him in 1917.

Optimistic, bright and thoughtful with a great sense of humor, “Hick” Holliday was respected by his many friends and idolized by his parents and sisters.

He graduated from Traverse City High School in 1912 and completed his studies in 1916 at Olivet College, where he helped win the 1913 Michigan intercollegiate football championship and also participated in the glee and oratory clubs.

He was 24 in 1917, living and working in Detroit. A bright future awaited.

Then, on April 6, the United States declared war on Germany. Harry answered the call and applied for admission to Officers Training School at Fort Sheridan, Ill. He was accepted and entered training in late August.

Within 14 months, he would die a hero in an American Red Cross hospital in France of wounds received in the Second Battle of the Marne — a monstrous fight  that turned the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor.

He was posthumously awarded the nation’s Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in action,” the second-highest military decoration next to the Congressional Medal of Honor. France also decorated his entire unit, the 30th Infantry, with Croix de Guerre with Palm and the French Legion of Honor for extraordinary bravery and skill.

Harry Holliday is Traverse City’s most-honored soldier of World War I, remembered in the name of Bowen-Holliday American Legion Post. No. 35.

His memory is preserved in 350 letters by his father, Dr. George A. Holliday, a military transport ship physician who wrote almost daily to wife Jennifer and daughters Margaret and Dorothy. Dr. Holliday’s two grandsons — Larry and Jack Bensley — came across the letters in 1956 as they helped their mother and aunt clean out the Holliday attic after their grandmother’s death at age 90.

The Holliday story and the stories of the 116,516 Americans killed and the 204,000 wounded in that “war to end all wars” are the reason Congress designated Nov. 11 as Armistice Day in 1919. The national holiday originally honored the 4.3 million Americans who served in World War I, but was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to celebrate all American military service veterans.

Harry’s story

Lt. Harry Holliday shipped out for England in early January 1918 and was assigned to the 30th Infantry’s machine gun company to fight in France’s trenches and shell-pocked moonscape.

“Since arriving in France I’ve been around quite a bit and seen enough of it as a country to last me for some time,” he wrote an Olivet College friend on Feb. 28, 1918. “However, I want to stay now until the whole thing is over.”

The Germans launched the Second Battle of the Marne at midnight on July 15 with a barrage of artillery fire, while 23 divisions of German storm troopers crossed the river in an attempt to break through a nine-mile line of Allied Forces on the other side and push toward Paris about 60 miles away. The battle was one of several in the German Army’s Spring Offensive of 1918 that killed and wounded 1.5 million.

The 30th Infantry and 38th Infantry bore the brunt of the Marne attack but held off the Germans.

Holliday was wounded twice in 10 hours at his machine gun at Mezy, near Chateau-Thierry on the Western Front. His actions that day are enshrined in the documentation of his Distinguished Service Award:

“Although wounded during the enemy barrage, he remained in charge of his gun squad, protecting it from the flank with pistol and hand grenades. He was again wounded by a hand grenade, but persisted in protecting the flank of the gun, though the enemy had advanced as close as the muzzle. After keeping his gun in action for 10 hours, he organized a platoon of his gunners and stragglers and fought a retiring action for over a mile. He remained with his men until ordered to the hospital on the account of the wounds.”

Harry cabled his parents in early August that he had been wounded, though not seriously, and told them not to worry. Later communications indicated he was recovering from a serious spinal wound after weeks of suffering, the Record-Eagle reported.

By early October he was deemed well enough to travel home and went to the American Red Cross Base Hospital in Savenay to join other American officers for the journey, then fell ill the day before he was to ship out. Surgeons operated again and found him full of infection from his wounds. A Red Cross nurse wrote a letter Oct. 2. 1918, informing his parents that he was in serious condition.


Harry died on Oct. 6, 1918, and was buried in a small village cemetery in Savenay. The family had no official word of his death until Nov. 4. But they already knew. On Oct. 29, his mother found a “Return to Writer” letter in the mailbox. It was also marked “Deceased.”

“Can you imagine a mother picking that letter up and seeing that?” Larry Bensley, her grandson who now lives in Omena, asked.

Like many of the 3,750 of Michigan’s 5,000 casualties, Harry’s remains eventually were returned to the United States for interment in his hometown.

His casket, draped in the American flag, arrived in Traverse City on Sept. 30, 1920, and was taken to the Holliday home at 612 Washington St. to lie in state until next afternoon at the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Chamber of Commerce asked that all businesses in the city close for the funeral.

On Friday, Traverse City’s Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I veterans marched to the Holliday home to form an honor column for pall bearers — all boyhood friends of Harry — who carried his casket to the church.

After the funeral service, a mounted escort led the funeral procession to Oakwood Cemetery for graveside services.

“From the distance came the notes of that soldier’s rest-call, ‘Taps,’” the Record-Eagle reported. “Lt. Harry Holliday, whose sacrifice was supreme, is Home — at Rest.”

Coming Monday: Capt. George A. Holliday.