William Holmberg, decorated Marine who became renewable energy advocate, dies at 88

Source: By Bart Barnes, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, September 19, 2016

William C. “Bill” Holmberg, then a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps and a Marine attaché to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 13, 1967, at the White House. (Courtesy of family/Courtesy of family)

William C. Holmberg, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who received the Navy Cross for his actions on a Korean battlefield and later spent decades as an advocate on Capitol Hill for renewable energy and environmental causes, died Sept. 8 at a hospital in Palm City, Fla. He was 88.

The cause was cancer, said a son, Mark Holmberg.A strapping 6-foot-4, Col. Holmberg signed up for the Marines at age 15, lying about his age to serve in World War II. He went through boot camp and was about to be shipped out to the Pacific when he was found out and sent home. He later reenlisted and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1951.The next year, he was leading a rifle platoon during the Korean War when he embarked on a mission deep in enemy-held territory for which he was awarded a Navy Cross, the service’s highest decoration for valor after the Medal of Honor.

Col. Holmberg, then a second lieutenant, engaged “in a fierce hand-to-hand battle while under an intense concentration of hostile mortar, machine-gun and small-arms fire,” the citation accompanying the medal read. “Although severely wounded during the engagement, he refused to be evacuated and, while receiving first aid, continued to issue orders and to direct the offensive operations of his unit.”

In an interview, his wife, Anne Ruthling Holmberg, said much of the unit was killed. Her husband, suffering severe stomach wounds that he thought would be fatal, grabbed two Korean prisoners, put one of them one under each shoulder, held grenades to their heads and forced them to carry him back to Allied lines.

“When he got there,” she added, “he was triaged into the group that could not be saved. Fortunately a doctor … recognized him and took him into the surgery tent and saved his life.”

After his military retirement in 1970, Col. Holmberg joined the Environmental Protection Agency. He had grown up in Washington state amid the vegetable fields and fruit orchards and felt a renewed sensitivity to protect the planet about seeing the waste and devastation of war, his family said.

He spent many years directing the Energy Department’s Office of Alcohol Fuel, where he began championing ethanol as a sustainable, alternative energy source. He also worked on the staff of Sen. Ben Nelson (R-Neb.) and managed associations promoting solar and wind energy initiatives as well as legislative support for environmental measures.

In 2001 Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), then Senate majority leader, praised Col. Holmberg in the Congressional Record not only as “a war hero but an indefatigable champion of the environment.”

William Carl Holmberg was born in Sumas, Wash., on July 12, 1928. His son, Mark Holmberg, a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, described him in the newspaper as “the son of a renegade German immigrant who abandoned him as a toddler along with his five older sisters and mother.”

At 3, William Holmberg was “helping his mother pick strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes in commercial fields,” his son wrote. Later he delivered newspapers and worked in a factory on cannery row.

After being sent home as an underage Marine, he worked nights in a pulp mill while attending high school during the day. Union members at the mill and madams at houses of prostitution where he had delivered newspapers persuaded political friends to get him an appointment to the Naval Academy, according to Mark Holmberg.

Following his tour in Korea, Col. Holmberg learned Russian at a language school in Germany, served on military missions to Moscow and Budapest, was a Marine Corps aide to two chiefs of naval operations, and served in combat assignments during the Vietnam War.

He retired in 1970 on a medical discharge after having had a heart attack while serving as a battalion commander on Okinawa.

In 2014, Col. Holmberg moved to Palm City from Vienna, Va.

His first wife, Mary Termohlen, died in 1986. Survivors include his wife of 14 years, Anne Ruthling Holmberg of Palm City; three sons from his first marriage, Eric Holmberg of Cleveland, Mark Holmberg of Richmond and Karl Holmberg of Vista, Calif.; two half-sisters; 16 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.