After 39 years, Army Capt. Arnold "Arnie" Holm Jr., is coming home.
The Waterford native died in 1972, at the age of 28, serving in the Army in Vietnam. For 39 years, his body was never found, lost somewhere in the highlands of South Vietnam.
That changed in May, when Holm’s remains were positively identified, along with two other men, as part of a “group investigation.” His remains were found largely because of the dedication of his best friend, Bill Cavalieri, with help from Waterford High School students.
“There is still a lot of confusion to it but it is as close to closure as some of these people are going to get,” Cavalieri said. “Closure for some people, maybe not me. It’s as close as we are going to get.”
On Nov. 6 at 1:30 p.m., there will be a ceremony at Ocean Beach in New London honoring the Waterford High School graduate, and the life he lived. And on Nov. 9, Holm will finally have his formal military burial, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
On June 11, 1972, 28-year-old Holm, a trained helicopter pilot, was flying an OH-6A observation helicopter with two other soldiers on a visual reconnaissance mission in Thua Thien, South Vietnam. His chopper, flying just 25 feet above the ground, was shot down, presumably killing all three men on board.
Soon thereafter, another helicopter holding two Americans went into the same area, and was also shot down. All five men were presumed dead, although no ground search was made for possible survivors or the bodies because of heavy fire in the area, according to military reports.
That left Holm’s wife, Magarete, his daughter, Jennifer, and his lifelong best friend, Cavalieri, without a body. Following military protocol, Holm was categorized as MIA (missing in action) for the first six months, and then his status was changed to KIA (killed in action), Cavalieri said.
“Without the body, you don’t know,” Cavalieri said. “You're thinking Jesus, I don’t want him to be alive and tortured, and I hope he died instantly… But if there is one person who could have gotten out of that jungle, it was Arnie.”
For the next 20 years, Cavalieri never spent a day without thinking about his best friend. Without the body, it was impossible to get closure, he said.
Then one day in the early 1990s, he was at a fair in Massachusetts and saw a POW-MIA Vietnam military kiosk. He went up to the men at the kiosk, and told them he lost a friend, Holm.
A man at the booth recognized the name instantly. Holm was not labeled as KIA though. His status was MIA, the man said.
“That was a pretty big bomb shell,” Cavalieri said. ““It was enough to rekindle the whole damn thing, after I already made peace with this thing.”
After hearing the news, Cavalieri went down to Washington, D.C. to get Holm’s file. Once classified, the information about Holm’s death was now available, and sure enough, he was officially labeled as MIA.
"Sometime in those 20 years, they must have changed his status from KIA to MIA," Cavalieri said. "I still don't know why."
This caused an “obsession” over the next two decades by Cavalieri to find his friend’s body. He started off alone, calling government office after government office, but getting no answers.
“All you want to know is the truth,” he said. “When then you don’t get what you want, it makes you kind of cold.”
Cavalieri did find some names of other pilots in Holm’s unit, but had no idea how to get in touch with them.
Waterford High School
Following the , 2001, Waterford High School decided to start a civics class the following year. The teacher was Brett Arnold.
Arnold sought out Cavalieri to speak to the class. Cavalieri told the class his story, and said although he had the names of the men in Holm’s unit, he did not know how to contact them.
The students, touched by the story, agreed to help, Arnold said. The class used the Internet, something Cavalieri at the time had no experience with, and were able to track down several members of the unit.
“This is exactly what we were looking for, a hands-on, real-life project,” Arnold said. “And here we were, helping out a former Waterford graduate. The kids really picked up on that.”
Soon, it wasn’t just one man searching for his best friend, but a community searching for its fallen son. The students located several of the men in Holm’s unit, and got some political support as well.
Students wrote letters to Rob Simmons, a Vietnam veteran who was U.S. Representative at the time. Unlike Cavalieri’s efforts, these paid off immediately.
“I sent letters for years, and never got anything,” Cavalieri said. “But when it comes from a class of kids, it gets read.”
Simmons invoked JPAC (the federal Joint P.O.W.-M.I.A. Accounting Command), which is charged with finding dead and missing soldiers. JPAC, using information from the men the students found who served in Holm’s unit, began the search for the pilot’s body.
Four times JPAC went into the highlands of Vietnam looking for Holm, and four times they were unsuccessful. In 2006, on what would probably be the last attempt, they found what they believed was Holm’s crash site.
In 2008, JPAC completed a month-long excavation of the site, finding equipment from Holm’s helicopter and small fragments of human remains. In 2009, a DNA test failed to produce any positive identification of any of three men suspected to be in the crash. But finally, in 2011, Holm’s wife, Margarete, along with the families of the other two men in the crash, agreed to a “joint identification,” with the remains to be buried in a single grave in Arlington, with a headstone listing all three names.
“I think it is bittersweet, to say the least,” Waterford High School Principal Don Macrino said. “You can never really believe somebody is dead without the body. Finally knowing that person is dead has got to be tough, but you hope it brings some closure to the family. Secondly though, I felt some pride for Waterford High School, and the work the students did.”
Brett Arnold, meanwhile, said he hoped his class’s effort made some difference.
“Even if we just helped one-half of one percent of the people affected, it feels like it is worth it,” Arnold said. “I’m really proud of our community.”
For Cavalieri, the burial represents the end of almost 40 years of wondering. While he was thankful for the work of Waterford High School, it was still tough for him to totally put the issue to rest.
“I would sure like to think its over,” he said. “I would sure like to think part of his remains are in that coffin. I don’t think any more about his survival.”
The event is at Ocean Beach on Sunday, where several speakers will talk about Holm. Holm, who was part of the third Waterford High School graduating class in 1962, would be 67 and a grandfather if alive today.
He was a great baseball and football player, Cavalieri and others said. But more importantly, he was a great man, he said.
“This was a pretty special guy,” Cavalieri said, who served as Holm’s best man in his wedding. “And all that is going to come out Sunday.”
Waterford High School students will also be filming at the event, as part of a documentary they are making.