"Midway" shocked Hollywood insiders by opening this past weekend as the No. 1 movie in America. The World War II film tells the story of the Battle of Midway in a style that combines old-fashioned war movie storytelling with state-of-the-art special effects that bring the battle closer than ever before.
The movie held its red-carpet premiere in Los Angeles last week and invited veterans of the Battle of Midway to join the cast and crew for the event. The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum in Honolulu arranged for me to join Navy veteran Jack Holder and his fianceé Ruth Calabro for the trip, courtesy of Southwest Airlines.
Jack's one of those WWII vets who enjoyed a long and successful career in civilian life before he retired in 1991. He never talked much, if at all, about his WWII service until he met Ruth in 2010.
And what a story it is. Jack joined the Navy in 1940 at age 17 to "get off the farm," with no real sense that war was imminent. Stationed at Pearl Harbor, Holder survived the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. On duty that day, he narrowly avoided getting strafed by a Japanese pilot by diving into a ditch between airplane hangars.
Jack flew as a flight engineer on a PBY at Midway, scouting for Japanese forces with squadron VP-23. His crew was the second to spot the Japanese armada. The scouts don't get as much screen time in the two hours of "Midway" as they would deserve in a 10-part miniseries, but they played a critical role in the Navy's success during the battle.
Holder later flew missions over Guadalcanal, retrained on the new B-24 in San Diego and completed his WWII service flying patrol missions over the English Channel.
Ruth encouraged him to tell his story, and Jack's memoir "Fear Adrenaline and Excitement" was published in 2014. Jack travels with a supply of his book and was happy to sell a personally autographed copy to anyone he met on our journey.
He and his fellow veterans were the hit of the evening in LA. After the "Midway" screening, the movie cast and crew retired to the STK restaurant at the W Hotel for a glam afterparty. Holding court in a roped-off area, the veterans met and took photos throughout the party.
As things wound down at midnight, most everyone had gone home except for Jack. Going strong at 97, the Navy veteran shut down the night and prepared for his next adventure.