Man of Sacrifice - Don Hollender

11 years ago

Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) has its share of heroes. As far as the eye can see, the simple white headstones are testament to their sacrifice. At some point we learn of those that stand out. Don Holleder is such a man. The current writer had never heard of this man – although after looking at a picture of his headstone in Section 1 of the cemetery, is sure that he vaguely remembers walking by it on one of his many excursions through ANC. It wasn’t until an online article was discovered in passing that more was learned about this man.

Don Holleder was recently described by Gary Hawkins, a staff writer at the Kennebec (Maine) Journal, as a “man of sacrifices”. He writes of four individual sacrifices that Don Holleder endured during his brief life.

Holleder attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and participated in both football and basketball. It was in football though, that he excelled. He was named All-America as a tight end in 1954. In 1955, his senior year, Don made the first of his sacrifices. Army head coach, Earl “Red” Blaik, needed a replacement for his quarterback who had graduated the following year. Don volunteered, knowing that it would cost him his All-America status and expose him and his coach to criticism. Heading into the final game of the season against No.11 Navy, Army was a disappointing 5–3 and Holleder was only a 34% passer. But Blaik stuck with his decision.

The night before the game, Blaik spoke with his players. He told them of how weary he had become of walking across the field to shake the hand of the winning coach. He described the walk across the field in front of 100,000 people to shake the hand and congratulate the Navy coach as “the longest walk I’ve ever taken in my coaching life”. There was momentary silence in the room. Then Holleder spoke. “Colonel,” he said, “you’re not going to have to make that walk”.

Holleder made good on his promise. Army won 14–6 in what has often been described as the greatest game in Army-Navy football history. A week later, Holleder became the only quarterback to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated following a game in which he failed to throw a single completion.

The offensive coordinator at Army during the 1950’s was Vince Lombardi who would go on to become a legendary NFL coach. Lombardi told Holleder that the New York Giants were going to draft him into the National Football League once his service obligation was up, but Holleder told him to never mind, he was going to remain in the Army – his second sacrifice.

Holleder’s third sacrifice came when he volunteered to go to Vietnam instead of Europe. This stemmed mostly from his time in Command and Staff College – he found the instructors to be weak on teaching tactics as well as ignorant of what was happening in Vietnam. Holleder had risen to the rank of Major by 1967 and found himself as the Operations Officer for 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division. It was at the Battle of Ong Thanh on October 17, 1967 that Don Holleder made his fourth and final sacrifice.

Dave Berry, who was a combat medic in the 2 /28th Infantry “Black Lions”, remembers that day. He writes:

Major Holleder had just gone from 2/28th to Brigade a short time before this operation. During the battle, the command element had been overrun and there was chaos in the field. Two rifle companies had been caught in patrol formation and were unable to set up a defensive perimeter to defend themselves….Major Holleder overflew the area and saw a whole lot of Viet Cong and many American soldiers, mostly wounded, trying to make their way out of the ambush area. He landed and went straight into the jungle, gathering a few soldiers to help him go get the wounded.

It is here that we pick up the story from Tim “Doc” Hinger, the 21-year old Army medic who was with Holleder:

I couldn’t keep up with him, his legs were churning. He saw my aid bag and yelled something like, ‘Come on, Doc, there’s more wounded in there. We’re going to get them.’ He took off and automatic weapon fire cut him down, stitched him across the chest. When I got to him and started to work on him, he died in my arms.

Holleder, who left behind a wife and four daughters, was one of 58 Americans killed at Ong Thanh, with two others missing in action, and 60 more wounded – out of 147 who fought in the battle.

Holleder went into the battle by choice. He was in a helicopter watching what was happening when he heard the cries for help on the radio and asked it to land. “I didn’t order him to do it, he volunteered to do it,” his commanding officer George Newman said. “And he was right. An officer who is in a position to help his men is bound by duty to go help (them).”

Holleder was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his actions, and in 1988, West Point named its indoor sports facility in his honor. He was buried in Section 1, grave 168-A, of ANC. One of the many mourners that attended his funeral was Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi. For the rest of his life, Lombardi kept in his Bible a small tassled prayer card from Holleder’s memorial service.

Each year, the Army football team recognizes one of their players with the Black Lion Award, given “to a player who best exemplifies the character of Don Holleder, leadership, courage, devotion to duty, self sacrifice and above all, an unselfish concern to put the team ahead of himself.” Holleder’s daughter, Katie, visits West Point every January to present the award to one of the team’s players.

On April 27, 2012, the Army posthumously awarded Holleder the Distinguished Service Cross at a graveside ceremony at ANC. In attendance were three of Holleder’s four daughters and more than 70 people, including West Point classmates and Army veterans who had known Holleder in Vietnam.

Terry Tibbetts has written a biography of Holleder: A Spartan Game: The Life and Loss of Don Holleder.

Written by Kevin Welker

Image attribution:
College Football Hall of Fame

Source attributions:
College Football Hall of Fame
Arlington National Cemetery
Beech, Mark. “One More Completion.” Sports Illustrated, April 30, 2012, 22.
Hawkins, Gary. “Sports Biography Unravels War Travesty.” Kennebec Maine Journal September 12, 2011.

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