Tee Holmes never knew his daddy. They were both cut from the same cloth of one of Laurens County’s oldest families. One was called “Willie T.,” the other simply, “Tee.” And, they were both lieutenants.
Willie T. Holmes joined the Georgia National Guard before his 20th birthday. Holmes was transferred to the 77th Division, which was heavily engaged in the siege of Guam and the deadly Battle of Leyte Gulf, where 1st Sergeant Holmes received a battlefield commission to 1st Lieutenant for his heroic actions.
The 77th was sent into Ie Shima, Okinawa to root out entrenched Japanese fortifications. Before dawn on April 21, 1945, Japanese soldiers counter attacked in mass. Holmes’ company, holding the left wing of the battalion’s position, was overrun. The entire company was nearly wiped out. Among the dead was Willie T. Holmes. Several years later in the late 1940s, Willie’s body was brought home for burial in Northview Cemetery. Willie’s brother took Willie’s son down to the depot to meet the train. “I never knew my father,” said the boy. “I knew it was a sad day.”
That young boy, born in the middle year of World War II, was William T. Holmes, forever known to all that knew him as “Tee.” “Tee” grew up in the in the Fabulous Fifties, the last decade of American innocence. He lived on the edge of downtown Dublin and knew every spot in town and the places to have fun.
“Tee,” after his graduation from Dublin High in 1961 and Middle Georgia College, joined the Marine Corps and trained as a helicopter pilot. In his book “Bonnie Sue, A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam,” Marion Sturkey described “Tee” as having a slow and nasal southern drawl, which no one could ever mistake as coming from a Yankee. “ ‘Tee’ loved to play his guitar and sing. In times of real and perceived crises, he always wore his perpetual and impish grin,” Sturkey fondly remembered.
In early December 1965, “Tee” was sent to Vietnam. When he arrived, he was told he would replace his friend Lt. Johnson, whom he had seen only eight days before back in the states. “Tee” was devastated when he learned that his buddy had been killed in action in his first week in Vietnam. “Tee” was assigned to HMM-64 to fly UH-34 helicopters. Since “Tee” hadn’t flown a UH-34 in three and half months, he was told to wait and to go back to Okinawa for more training before he could fly any missions. An operations officer came in the room looking for a copilot to fly on a “milk run” to Da Nang. “Tee” felt comfortable in the UH-34, so he volunteered to go along for the experience, a decision he soon came to regret.
On the morning of December 8, 1965, the copter, with Capt. Jim Givan in command, took off for Da Nang. It was raining. Fog cut the visibility way down. Givan and Holmes piloted the helicopter at a low altitude, just far enough off the coast as to avoid ground fire. The weather took a turn for the worse. While winds were gusting up to thirty-five knots, the flight to Da Nang was completed without any incident. The crew unloaded their cargo, helicopter parts and equipment, and the necessary liquids, eighty cases of beer, before returning to their base. The weather went from bad to worse. Clouds had dropped down to two hundred feet above sea level. While flying just above the wave tops with automatic controls, something went wrong, terribly wrong.
Tee (left) and his buddies in Vietnam
With no warning of any kind, the engine died. Enemy fire from the beach riddled the air craft. Being less than two hundred above the water level, there was no time to get out. Within seconds, the UH-34 hit the water. “Tee was the last one of the crew to safely exit the aircraft. “I struggled for some time before I realized I had not released my seat belt and shoulder harness. I was going to the bottom. When I finally got out, it was a long way to the surface and it seemed an eternity to get there,” remembered Holmes. The waves were eight feet high. The salty ocean spray pommeled the four crew members. The men were scattered and not able to see each other unless they were on the crest of wave at the same time. The other ships in the flight returned to pick up their comrades. The men in the water were in a dilemma. If they waved their arms, they would alert the gunners on the beach. If they didn’t, they might not be seen. “It was an easy choice, I waved and splashed like a maniac!” “Tee”, the captain, and the crew chief, Sgt. Glenn, were hoisted to safety. Cpl. Corle, the gunner, didn’t make it.
“Tee” survived his tour of duty in Vietnam. After the war, Holmes worked a successful 25-year stint as a sales representative of the Cram Map Company, followed by 17 years of service to Home Depot.
As one of the ageless ones, “Tee’s” death from cancer on June 16, 2013 came as a mind numbing shock to his scores of friends, who still see his perpetual smile and remember his endless wit.
“I shall forever on my days left on this earth miss ‘Tee’ Holmes and his smile and his stories and his friendship and his gentle ways,” wrote Anna Montford Shepard.
“Tee's” classmates in Paul Wilkes' chemistry class at Dublin High can remember the famous ‘Tee’ Holmes method" of problem solving, when he would sometimes arrive at a correct answer by an illogical injection of irrelevant numbers into an heretofore-unknown formula. There must have been a genius hiding in Tee somewhere, commented Phillip Haynes, who as a ground soldier in Vietnam, saw “Tee” and the chopper pilots (and medics) as the heroes of the war..
Outside of his wife Peggy and daughter Carrie, no one knew “Tee” Holmes better than high school classmate and friend of more than six decades, Earl Vaughn. Holmes and Vaughn grew up in the exciting, carefree years of the 1950s in Dublin.
They laid Tee’s body to rest, fittingly in the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton, on Monday. In his last final words to his best friend, Vaughn told “Tee’s” mourners what they already knew. They had all listened to stories (laughing, crying or learning from them,) they all had listened to his music and everyone present fondly remembered the friend they had known since the first time they met him.
“I'm fairly certain I have never used the word "precious" to describe Tee Holmes before,” Vaughn remarked. But, I think it's safe to say that Tee was precious to all of us. He was a loving husband and father to Peggy and Carrie, and a treasured friend to the rest of us,” concluded Vaughn.
Pete Jernigan and Tee Holmes
It was in the year 1965, when we almost lost “Tee” for the first time, when Johnny Mandel and Paul Webster’s “The Shadow of Your Smile” was awarded the Grammy’s Song of the Year and the Oscar’s Best Original Song. Webster’s opening lyrics perfectly capture the sentiment of the friends of the young boy whom they came to know and love; “The shadow of your smile when you are gone will color all my dreams and light the dawn.”
Steve Rainey, Tee Holmes, Pete Jernigan