Holsclaw, Lieutenant Colonel Jack D. (1918-1998)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 4/17/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10309
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Jack Holsclaw was a significant military figure from Washington. During World War II he flew as a Tuskegee airman. The Tuskegee Airmen were an all-black pursuit squadron formed during the era of a segregated military. His squadron, the 332d Fighter Group, was tasked with escorting bombers over enemy territory. On July 18, 1944, in an aerial battle over Italy, Holsclaw shot down two German fighters. For this action he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was most proud that his squadron did not lose a single bomber it escorted. He made the Air Force a career and retired a lieutenant colonel in 1965. In 1973 Holsclaw joined the staff of People's National Bank, Bellevue branch. His People's Bank career lasted until 1983, when he permanently retired. 

Early Years

Jack Holsclaw was born in Spokane. His father, Charles W. Holsclaw (1871-1944), was a department store clerk in a Spokane store. His mother, Nell E. Holsclaw (1890-?), was a teacher. Jack demonstrated excellence at an early age. As a 15 year old, he became the first Spokane black to earn the Eagle Scout badge. Attending Spokane's North Central High School, he excelled academically and in sports.

He graduated in June 1935 and went to Whitworth College for one year. While at Whitworth he dated Bernice Williams (1921-2006), who would become his wife.

Desiring to play baseball under famed Washington State College coach Arthur "Buck" Bailey (1896-1964), he transferred to WSC (later WSU). Due to transfer rules, he sat out one season before playing his junior year. He initially played third base, but Coach Bailey moved him to centerfield since he had such a good throwing arm. Holsclaw contributed to a Cougars team with an outstanding season, finishing as co-champions of the Northern Division, Pacific Coast Conference. In his senior year he transferred to Western States College, Portland, Oregon, into its chiropractic program. While at Western States he also enrolled in the government sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program at Multnomah College and earned his pilot's license. He completed the chiropractic program in 1942 and passed the Oregon state board examination. However, he was anxious to join the war effort rather than immediately pursue a medical profession.  

The Tuskegee Airmen 
On October 5, 1942, he enlisted in the army as a private and, following an army delay, entered flight school. He trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Alabama, a black flight-training program and received his wings and commission on July 27, 1943. Upon graduation he was granted leave and went to Portland, Oregon, to marry Bernice Williams. Following the wedding the couple relocated to Michigan, where Lieutenant Holsclaw received advanced training at Selfridge Field near Detroit.  In December 1943 his squadron was shipped overseas to Italy. Bernice Holsclaw returned to Portland and stayed active in voice training and in programs to advance interracial understanding.
Lieutenant Holsclaw flew in the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332d Fighter Group, which became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Initially the 332d flew Bell P-39 Airacobras and protected ships and flew coastal patrols. Then the squadron upgraded to Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. In July 1944 it received the more powerful North American P-51 Mustang. Holsclaw named his favorite P-51 "Bernice Baby" in honor of his wife. The 332d aircraft had distinctive red tails lending to the nickname "Red Tails." Bomber crews honored the Tuskegee airmen by naming them "Red Tail Angels." The 332d Fighter Group took on the task of escorting bombers on their runs over enemy territory and shielding them from German fighters.
A Memorable Battle
Lieutenant Holsclaw had his most memorable aerial battle on July 18, 1944. That day the 332d Fighter Group composed of four squadrons with 16 P-51s each was providing protection for Boeing B-17s bombers making bombing runs on German targets. A German fighter force of nearly 300 fighters attacked the bomber formation. The 332d fighters skillfully protected the bombers. Three squadrons stayed with the bombers while Lieutenant Holsclaw as flight leader of his 100th Fighter Squadron engaged the German fighters. In the battle 11 German planes were shot down. Lieutenant Holsclaw shot down two Messerschmitt 109s (Me-109s). The effective 332d Fighter Group reaction allowed the bombers to hit their targets.
For his actions Jack Holsclaw was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In a ceremony on September 10, 1944, at the 332d air base in Ramitelli, Italy, Lieutenant Holsclaw had the Distinguished Service Cross pinned on. Three other black pilots receiving the medal included Colonel Benjamin Davis Jr. (1912-2002), commander of the 332d Fighter Group. His father, the first black army general, pinned the medal on his son and on the others. Colonel Benjamin Davis Jr. had graduated in the first Tuskegee Army Airfield flight training class. He would go on to be the first black general in the United States Air Force.
In December 1944 pilot Holsclaw had completed 68 combat missions, so nearing the limit of 70 when he was grounded. The group commander took him off flight duty to guard against battle fatigue and stress. Lieutenant Holsclaw became the Assistant Operations Officer, an important administrative position that included aerial mission planning. In January 1945 Holsclaw was promoted to captain.
The 332d achieved fame for its success in escorting bombers over enemy territory. It flew in seven major missions and did not lose a single bomber. Jack Holsclaw was most proud of this accomplishment. 

United States Air Force Career

Captain Holsclaw returned to the United States in June 1945 to serve as assistant base operations officer, Godman Field, Fort Knox, Kentucky. That month Army Air Forces Chief General of the Army Henry H. "Hap" Arnold (1886-1950) sent Colonel Benjamin O. Davis to Godman Field to bring the black 477th  Bombardment Group to combat readiness for action against Japan. The 477th had training issues due to racism and racial conflict. General Arnold replaced the white commander with Colonel Davis and directed that other white officers also be replaced with blacks. Colonel Davis brought along effective officers such as Jack Holsclaw to rebuild the 477th. Although they quickly improved the 477th they could do little regarding racism at the base. Captain Holsclaw would move with the bomber group to Lockbourne Air Base near Columbus, Ohio, in March 1946. The bomber group was inactivated in 1947.
Holsclaw went on to teaching and training duties. He was an instructor at the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs at Tuskegee Institute and then Tennessee State College, Nashville. For his Japan assignment in 1954-1957, Bernice was able to accompany her husband. He achieved success in Cold War training and in educating young air force personnel. From May 1962 to the end of 1964 he served as Chief, Training Division, Sixth Air Force Reserve Region, Hamilton Air Force Base, California. He directed the preparation of two textbooks to guide incoming air force personnel.
Later Years
On January 1, 1965, Lieutenant Colonel Holsclaw retired and received the Distinguished Service Medal for his training accomplishments. He became a manager in the Marin County Housing Authority, California. In 1973 he and Bernice fulfilled their wish to return to Washington. Jack Holsclaw joined the staff at the People's National Bank, Bellevue branch, on the corner of NE 8th Street and Bellevue Way. This career extended until 1983 and permanent retirement, when Bernice and Jack took up residence in Arizona.
Jack Holsclaw contributed to the great wartime success of the 332d and to the success of postwar integration in the United States Air Force. He is remembered as a pilot of the legendary Tuskegee airmen and career Air Force officer.

Sources: C. James Quann, WSU Military Veterans: Heroes and Legends (Spokane, Washington: Tornado Creek Publications, 2005); John B. Holway, Red Tails, Black Wings (Las Cruces, New Mexico: Yucca Tree Press, 1997); Alan L. Gropman, Special Studies: The Air Force Integration, 1945-1964 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, 1985); "Air Corps Officer Weds Girl at Bethel Church," The Oregonian, September 14, 1943, p. 17;  "Portland Flier Bags 2 Planes," The Oregonian, July 23, 1944, p. 18; "Flying Negro Colonel Is Awarded D.F.C.," The Oregonian, September 11, 1944, p. 8;  "Negro P-51 Pilot Made Captain," The Oregonian, January 29, 1945, p. 5; "Negro Proud Of Unit's Job," The Oregonian, January 27, 1946, p. 18;  "Ex-Portland Flier to Head ROTC in Tennessee School," The Oregonian, July 3, 1951, p. 8.

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