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He served his country and then his God
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The late Henry Holmes with a photo of the all-black Navy unit he served with in during World War II. - photo by Photo Contributed

Henry Holmes III was a hero in life. He stood tall.

The 90-year-old World War II Navy vet made a difference in countless lives as a Christian pastor, but couldn’t break through the red tape of paperwork to be recognized as a victim by the Veterans Administration for his back injuries that occurred at Port Chicago.  He was assigned to an all black unit in 1944 where he was hurt while unloading a truck. It is an injury that plagued him until his dying day at his French Camp home last week.

In his search for the recognition of his back injuries, the exceedingly humble Holmes was told that his records had been lost.  There was no proof that anything had ever happened to him while on duty.

Holmes had said “colored sailors” were only allowed to stay in the Mare Island Hospital where he was sent if they were actually injured there, but not for an extended period of time.  He had been diagnosed as having a ruptured spine and remained in that hospital for about a month and on crutches for another six weeks.

He added that sick and injured “colored sailors” had been sent to hospitals in Martinez and Oak Knoll Naval hospitals in Oakland.  As late as September of 2009 Veterans Affairs Director Lynn Flint sent a letter to Holmes saying, “Mr. Holmes’ claim for his back condition was denied because of the evidence of record did not establish that it is related to his military service.”

Holmes and his wife Ernie Mae moved to French Camp in 1979 after his retirement from Greyhound Bus Lines. It was an hour’s commute from the church he founded in San Francisco – the New Antioch Baptist Church in August of 1968.  Although he was living locally, there was rarely a Sunday he didn’t drive to the Bay Area to help lead the congregation.

A skilled carpenter, despite his chronic back pain, he assisted in building other churches: The Paradise Baptist Church, the Uptown Church of Christ, the East Oakland Church of God in Christ, the Liberty Hill Baptist Church.  Holmes also took part in renovating Life Tabernacle of Oakland, Saints Rest Baptist Church – both in Oakland – and Bethel A.M.E. Church, Second Kings and the Mount Enon Baptist. They are all churches in the Bay Area.

With his back pain worsening as he aged, Henry enjoyed the farm life in French Camp where he grew countless vegetables in his garden that he shared with friends and with various church congregations.  He also raised chickens, goats and geese.  One of his passions was spending “quiet time” in the barn talking with God.

Frustrated by his inability to be recognized for his devotion to duty, he was at my desk many times over the last four years, looking for any avenue that could provide relief of pain in his continuing quest.  Together we focused on senators and congressmen looking for any help they might provide, but it all gravitated down to the fact his medical records were missing.

It was at the young age of 17 that he had joined the U.S. Navy where he served for nearly four years, leaving with an honorable discharge – not a medical discharge.  He drove 18-wheelers for 10 years until he became the first African-American hired as a driver and instructor for the Greyhound Bus Lines.  Holmes retired after 25 years of service with Greyhound.

A graduate of the Fellowship Bible Institute of San Francisco, his church tenure included being a Sunday school teacher, Bible teacher, organizer, anointed Gospel preacher, pastor and a spiritual leader who loved everyone he encountered.

For anyone who encountered Henry Holmes, they were truly blessed by the aura of his faith that couldn’t help but touch them in a most holy way.  A “Quiet Hour,” with viewing from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m., is scheduled for Wednesday at the ABC Wallace Funeral Services at 445 N. American Street in Stockton.  Holmes funeral is set for Thursday at the Paradise Baptist Church in Oakland.

In addition to his wife, he leaves three sons and three daughters, along with bushels of good memories.  He truly made a difference in the world over the last 90 years.