97-year-old concentration camp liberator honored in Massachusetts
By SUE SCHEIBLE | The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. | Published: June 27, 2019
BRAINTREE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Tarmo Holma, a 97-year-old decorated WWII veteran who came to this country at age 7 from Finland, served under Gen. George S. Patton and at age 21 helped liberate Nazi concentration camps, was honored this week for a half century of service in the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
"Tarmo Holma is celebrating 50 years as a dedicated member serving from Flotilla 12-05 in Braintree," Commander Thomas Phair of Abington said. "Tarmo has been a boat crew patrol member and Flotilla 12-05 staff officer protecting the public on our waterways since June 6, 1969."
Phair also paid tribute to Holma's role in May 1945: "While advancing through Germany on a tank in the 11th Armored Division, Tarmo noticed what he thought was a large German army group approaching. It soon became apparent that it was approximately 22,000 Holocaust camp prisoners who were being led to their deaths in quarries and caves which were to be blown in on them. The German soldiers who were marching the group scattered and the concentration camp prisoners were saved."
Pete Somers of Plymouth, a longtime admirer of Holma, served as master of ceremonies and recounted his military service in detail.
State Sen. Walter Timilty presented Holma with a Senate citation, one of many awards Holma received Wednesday evening at the Braintree Yacht Club. "Tarmo! Congratulations to you! Rep. Bill Driscoll and I are both very proud to be here tonight to honor you," Timilty said. Holma, who broke his hip and uses a walker, stood during the Pledge of Allegiance. He remains an auxiliary member, rarely missing a meeting or event.
A quiet man who becomes emotional when recalling the Holocaust liberation, Holma has described the occasion as "very dramatic" in a video he made some 10 years ago for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
"They were swarming out of there and dying in front of me," he says tearfully in the video. "It was very hard. And we got a radio message, 'Don't feed them, because it's too much for them.' We were ready to give them our rations. And they were out there in droves because the Germans had been putting them to a forced march to get them away from us, but we arrived there too soon so they were still out there in droves."
In 1946, he returned to Quincy, married and moved to Dorchester and later to Milton, worked as a mechanic, raised two sons and become a roller skating champion in the 1950s with his late wife Catherine. He also greatly enjoyed dancing.
Born Tarmo Kydonholma in Finland on Oct. 8, 1921, he arrived in the U.S. with his mother in 1928, two years after his father, and lived in Hallowell and Rockland, ME. Within a year he moved to Brewer's Corner, a Finnish neighborhood in West Quincy, attended classes to learn English and entered 1st grade in the Quincy public schools. He graduated from Quincy High School in 1940 and studied under a scholarship at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston for a year. He joined the U.S. Army, became a U.S. citizen on May 29, 1944 and shortened his last name to Holma "to fit in."
He was first assigned to an Army Mechanized Division and then to Gen. George Patton's 11th Armored Division as a tank crew member responsible for weapons and communications from 1944-1946. During the invasion of German-held Austria, in May 1945 the 11th Armored (the "Thunderbolt" division) overran two of the largest Nazi concentration camps in the country: Mauthausen and Gusen.
After WWII, Holma returned to Quincy and married Catherine Faherty of Dorchester. In the 1950s, they became New England roller skating champions. In 1972, they bought a house in Milton; when Catherine died in 1978, their son Eric was 3 and John was 16.
Throughout this time, he worked as a mechanic for the General Services Administration, where he was eventually promoted to vehicle inspector. He retired in 1989.
Active in dancing and social clubs, he was a member of The Viking Club, the Braintree Yacht Club, the Irish Social Club in West Roxbury and the Finnish Center at Saima Park in Fitchburg. In 1990, he met Anne Louise MacLean of Brockton while taking dance lessons in Brockton and they remain together. MacLean, 79, also received an award for her support of Holma and the auxiliary.
In 2005, the Holocaust Memorial Museum honored concentration camp liberators to mark the 60th anniversary of V-E Day. Holma, 83, met William Luksenburg, 82, of Silver Spring, Maryland for the first time. Both men were 21 in 1945 when Holma's 11th Armored Division came upon the survivors of the Flossenburg concentration camp, where Luksenburg was held. Luksenburg died in 2014.
During the war, MacLean said, Holma's life may have been saved because he was still a Finnish citizen when he joined the U.S. Army. His mechanized unit was leaving New York for the D-Day invasion when at the last minute, he was pulled off the loading ramp because regulations did allow soldiers to fight against their native countries. He learned later that most of his mechanized division was lost in D-Day fighting.
Instead, he was sent to the West Coast to train for another division, became a U.S. citizen, ended up in Patton's 11th Armored Division and wound up helping to liberate the camps.
Wednesday night at the Braintree Yacht Club, Tarmo also received citations from Gov. Charlie Baker, the Massachusetts House, the Milton select board, and veterans organizations. U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary District One Northern Region Commodore Charles Grossimon, District Captain Steve McCann and Commodore Carolyn V. Belmore were present. Honors from veterans included The American Veterans Center in Boston and an official citation from the state Office of Veterans Affairs. He also received challenge coins from the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation and the state's Chief of Military Aide.
©2019 The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.
Visit The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. at www.patriotledger.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Tarmo Holma, 97, a Coast Guard Auxiliary member for 50 years and WWII Holocaust liberator, salutes as he is presented with the American flag at the Braintree Yacht Club in Braintree on Wednesday June 26, 2019.
LAUREN OWENS LAMBERT FOR THE PATRIOT LEDGER/TNS