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Retired black minister struggles to secure VA benefits

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Retired black minister struggles to secure VA benefits

The Rev. Henry Holmes holds a photograph of his all-black unit that served on the docks of Port Chicago during World War II. The only white in the group is the Navy chief seen middle foreground. ...

GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin


POSTED November 2, 2009 2:34 a.m.

This is a story of a retired black minister who served his country, refused a medical discharge for a back injury because of his sense of duty, and who was told by a Navy doctor that he could file for disability when his pain became more intense as he aged.

Now he says the government has turned its back on him saying his accident and injury never happened – they have no information on the incident giving him little more than lip service for medical service, he says.

The lost U.S. Navy medical records of 86-year-old Rev. Henry Holmes, of French Camp, dating back to his World War II service injury have kept him from claiming any disability consideration with the Department of Veterans Affairs, he argues.

He remembers the doctor’s reaction when he refused a medical discharge in war time.  He said he pointed his finger at him and he remembers him saying, “You know Holmes, I like you.”    

Holmes said he recalls July 1944 well, being stationed in Port Chicago on Mare Island.  It was a time when the “colored” were separated from the Caucasians and used mostly as laborers.  It was then that He was working as a truck driver tying down a load on a flat bed truck when a fork lift driver hit the rear of the trailer and he was thrown to the ground landing on his back.

It was in that same period of time when two transport vessels loading ammunition at the port’s naval base were engulfed in a massive explosion destroying everything within a one mile radius.  Two ships were lost as well as the pier and the dock. The blast killed more than 300 military personnel and another 400 were injured – most of whom were “colored,” Holmes said.

The Port Chicago explosion and the mutiny that followed is one of the most famous and tragic stories of job discrimination in the United States military, he said.     

“Many members of my company were killed in the explosion.  I was a truck driver and had a different assignment on that day.  Otherwise I would have been among the killed or injured,” he said.

Holmes added that for years he has tried to maintain a normal life while enduring “excruciating pain” from his back and neck injuries.

The Navy vet has spent the last 25 years living in French Camp – now retired from working as a Greyhound Bus driver and from being the senior pastor of the New Antioch Baptist Church in San Francisco after 32 years of service.  The Rev. Homes continues to serve as pastor emeritus of that Baptist Church.  He and his wife Ernie Mae now raise chickens, geese, goats and grow a variety of fruits and vegetables that they share with friends, neighbors and stash some away for family needs.

Visibly frustrated, he feels he has exhausted his administrative remedies both with the Department of Veterans Affairs and his congressional representatives for any help in his mid 80s being told there are no records of his injury.

Veterans Affairs letter
disputes military injury

As late as Sept. 22, Veterans Affairs director Lynn Flint signed a letter to Holmes saying, “Mr. Holmes’ claim for his back condition was denied because the evidence of record did not establish that it is related to his military service.”

Greyhound Bus Lines let him go after 25 years service when a doctor ruled his worsening back injury could possibly keep his right leg from responding to a highway emergency preventing him from being able to step on the brake.

Representatives from Congressman Dennis Cardosa’s offices both in Merced and Washington, D.C. initially said they were unable to comment on the case because of privacy issues.  A subsequent call last Monday from  Mike Jensen, Cardoza’s press secretary in Washington, noted that  the congressman had requested an expedited review of the case from the Veterans’ Administration.

Jensen said that Cardoza is known for his tireless support of U.S. vets and their needs.  The results of the review will be made public as soon as he receives the VA report, he added.

Holmes said during the World War ll years colored sailors were only allowed to stay in the Mare Island Hospital if they were injured there, but not for an extended period of time.  The colored sailors were sent away to hospitals in Martinez or Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland.

He recalled he was diagnosed as having a ruptured spine and remained in that hospital for about a month, and on crutches for another six weeks. 

After his hospitalization he was given orders to Hawaii and from there to Okinawa, Japan.  After completing his tour in Okinawa he received an honorable discharge.

In 1978 he was convinced by the continuing pain that he needed to have treatment for his back.  When the VA denied his requests for help, he underwent a back and spine operation at the private Marshall Hale Hospital in San Francisco.

In 1981 Holmes had another operation for his neck.  But he continued to experience pain for the next four years and applied again for treatment from the Veterans’ Hospital and was accepted as a follow up for his surgery – but later declined again for treatment, he said.

“From the time of this injury in 1944 until today, I continue to experience back and neck pain.  What is troubling about my case is the absence of military hospital records that document my injury or my treatment in 1944 at Mare Island,” he said.

Ultimate insult
from 1985 inquiry

In the beginning of his fight for benefits in 1985, he said he went to the Mare Island Hospital prior to its closure, again asking for information on his hospitalization.  He said he told the sailor at the desk that he had been a sailor on Mare Island during World War II and had been injured in 1944 and was hoping to find some military record of his hospitalization.

He recalled the ultimate insult when the sailor went behind the counter into a separate office and asked about this black man who was seeking his records.  A response he said he overheard from inside that office was one he said he will never forget:  “A damn nigger didn’t count in World War II!”

He said after hearing those words he didn’t know what his next step could possibly be for a remedy to his need for medical support.    

Holmes noted that he has endured tremendous suffering, adding that he continues to take prescription medications for the injury saying he has spent countless hours appealing to various veteran organizations and the government for help to obtain records that would prove his case – always being told none exist.

“Through the years I grew frustrated and simply gave up until in 2007, when I approached the VA Clinic in Oakland about issuing to me the dietary supplement Ensure for digestive problems – that I would not get it until I reopened my claim,” he said.

As of this date Holmes says he is still wringing his hands in frustration – 65 years after the fact – continuing to meet nothing but red tape.  Just sitting at home is not a way of life for him despite his discomfort.   On Sunday he made one of his pastoral trips to an Oakland hospital where he spent the entire afternoon visiting the sick.

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