“We graduated one week, and by Tuesday of the following week, we were on the bus to sign up,” Rees said in an interview last month.
Rees, now 93, lives in Bryan, where he moved with his wife, Betty, in 1957.
On May 11, 1945, 19-year-old Rees arrived on Okinawa for Company I, 184th Infantry of the 7th Infantry Division. Ten days later, his unit started a monthlong journey that he described as “constant combat.” He and other American and Allied GIs fought Japanese soldiers at close range along Okinawa’s east coast.
Okinawa was the site of the last — and biggest — Pacific island battle of the war. It claimed more than 76,000 Japanese soldiers and nearly 15,000 Allied soldiers.
Rees recalled being “eyeball-to-eyeball” with Japanese adversaries, recalling that he was close enough to “touch bayonets” with a Japanese soldier.
On June 21, just hours before the island was declared safe, a Japanese sniper shot Rees in the foot. Rees said that the sniper could have killed him, but Japanese forces aimed to wound rather than to kill because treating the wounded cost Allied forces more resources.
Rees underwent multiple surgeries and spent months in the hospital, during which time he received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
“It’s a major part of my life,” Rees said of his military service, which lasted 21 months and seven days during and after World War II. “Some people try to get away from it and ignore it, and others try to make more out of than it was. Being eyeball-to-eyeball with the enemy, it’s tough to get more involved than that, and I want to give it a reasonable place — not too little, not too much.”
Rees and his son, Lane, went back to Okinawa in recent years as part of a Rotary International trip to Tokyo, and they found the spot where he had been injured in the summer of 1945.
“It was overgrown with grass and it had changed, but I figured from the trees that I’d found the spot,” Rees said.
Rees published a book, Three Flags and Two Brothers, in fall 2016. In the book’s foreword, Rees wrote that he wrestled with the question of whether to write a book — he said he was concerned that “writing about oneself seems like the ultimate ego trip” — but decided ultimately “the pros outweigh the cons.”
“Many of my brothers in arms never made it back or have died since and can never record their experiences,” Rees wrote. “Therefore, I feel a solemn obligation to speak for them as well as tell my own story.”
Rees said some of his possessions from his time in the Army are on display at the Museum of the American GI in south College Station.
Rees said recently that he worked in the Social Security Administration at various sites around Texas. He became the supervisor of the Bryan office in 1957 and remained there until his retirement in 1984.
“I’ve been here ever since — that’s a long time,” Rees said last month. “I’ve always liked the melding here of the academic community, the military and the working people.”
Rees is a Hall of Fame member of the Bryan Rotary Club; he said he joined just after moving to town. He also worked with the Boy Scouts, has taught Sunday school at church and has been involved in numerous other community endeavors.
For last month’s interview with The Eagle, Rees was joined at his home by Exa York, a longtime family friend who said she grew up in the Rees family’s neighborhood and “to this day” attends a weekly prayer meeting at Rees’ home.
“I keep thinking about how you’re going out there as a high school graduate and coming back as a mature adult,” York said to Rees. Rees said that after his 21 months in the Army, he moved to Tucson and enrolled at the University of Arizona.
“Being wounded in the service, the military took good care of me, helping me go to college with the GI Bill,” Rees said.
He met his wife, Betty, while at Arizona. They married in 1950.
York said that on multiple occasions when she has gone out to eat with Rees and others, anonymous individuals have paid for Rees’ meals.
“People are constantly, wherever we are in town, coming up to him and thanking him for his service,” York said. “I’m proud to be a member of ‘Team Holly.’ You cannot believe how many people, many of them prominent citizens, are really supporters of Holly’s. ... It is just an endless group of people who all keep in touch with him.
“Holly has his own fan club,” she said.