Service held to honor World War II veteran
May 1—PORTAGE, Pa. — A tribute to Army Air Forces Tech. Sgt. John Holoka Jr. — with military medals, a Purple Heart certificate, flowers and colorful mylar birthday balloons — was displayed on Monday inside Serenko-Claar Funeral Home in Portage.
Holoka, a Cresson native, died in 1944 when serving during World War II.
His remains, however, were not officially accounted for until Jan. 24 of this year. Holoka was officially declared killed in action on March 22.
As a formal farewell, family members, active military personnel and representatives from local Veterans of Foreign Wars posts gathered to honor Holoka on the anniversary of the day he was born — May 1, 1919. His niece, Susanne Ciarello, from Long Island, New York, requested the birthday balloons.
"I felt my family, my relatives, they've been in mourning for almost 80 years," Ciarello said. "I don't want this to be a mourning. I wanted this to be a celebration."
Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Stivers, a casualty assistance officer, presented the medals during a ceremony at the funeral home.
"To finally get some closure (for the family), to me, it's a great honor to be a part of it," Stivers said.
Ciarello arranged for her uncle's remains to be buried at his mother's gravesite in Portage's St. Michael Orthodox Cemetery.
"He's going back to his mother's arms, and that's where he belongs," Ciarello said.
Ciarello never met her uncle, but heard stories about him from relatives.
"My mom didn't talk too much about him," Ciarello said. "She was very emotional. He was supposed to be my godfather. He died in June. I was born in January. She really didn't talk. She used to tell us that he was in the Army and he got killed in a plane. We never understood war or anything back then. It's still hard to understand it. And that's all we ever really knew."
On June 22, 1944, Holoka, then 25 years old, was aboard a B-24H Liberator, following a bombing raid on a German airfield in Saint-Cyr-l'École, France, near Versailles, according to a report provided by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The airplane was struck by anti-aircraft fire, but the pilot still managed to fly it back to West Sussex, England where an order to bail out was given. Seven crew members successfully exited the plane.
Three other crew members, including Holoka, did not get out before the plane went down. Co-pilot Sgt. John Crowther's remains were immediately recovered. But Holoka and Lt. William Montgomery, from Ford City, Armstrong County, were lost.
At least four searches to find the wreckage and bodies occurred between 1947 and 2019.
Finally, on June 2021, human remains were discovered at the crash site, including those of Montgomery, who was considered to be accounted for as of Jan. 10, 2023.
Retired Army Maj. Steven McAlpin participated in the excavation and came from his home in Rochester, New York, to attend the service on Monday.
"It's probably the greatest thing I've ever done is to bring this young man home to his family," McAlpin said. "It's something I'm deeply invested in. It really brings it full circle. When I was deployed, if I didn't make it home, it surely would be comforting to know that somebody brought me home to my family."