World War II vet encourages youth to join, serve with pride

GREENWOOD—When Veterans Day rolls around on Nov. 11, Alex Harris will observe the day from a perspective that is becoming increasingly rare.

Harris, 91, is a World War II veteran who served on a destroyer in the U.S. Navy.

He is a member of a distinguished but dwindling community. According to statistics compiled by the Veterans Administration, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of about 550 a day. That means only about 1.2 million of the 16 million who served in that war are still alive to tell their stories.

Harris, who attends Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Greenwood, is happy to be one of them. He looks back on his years of service with pride and no regrets.

He was born in Clinton but lived most of his life in Greenwood. The war disrupted his otherwise quiet existence when he and his family learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 while a local priest was celebrating Mass in their home.

11-06-14-aharris-cmykHarris quickly decided he didn’t want to wait around for the Army to draft him, so in 1942 he went to Columbia at age 18 to enlist in the Navy. Within a week, he left for boot camp, and was assigned to the U.S.S. Gillespie, part of a four-ship destroyer group that saw action in North Africa and several Pacific theaters, including Iwo Jima and the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, considered one of the longest and deadliest campaigns of the war.

Harris worked in the boiler room on the Gillespie and is thankful he and his friends came through the war safely.

“My ship didn’t get a scratch, but a Japanese plane dropped a bomb right between the stacks of one of our sister ships,” he said.

Wartime prompted a quick wedding for Harris and his beloved late wife, Helen. They met after he enlisted in the Navy, wrote hundreds of letters to each other, and then decided to get married during a brief, four-day leave he had in 1944. The catch? She was not a Catholic and the young couple had to receive urgent permission from the bishop to marry. They were together for 53 years before Mrs. Harris died in 1997.

Faith was a challenge, too. Harris said he was in the Pacific for a year before a priest arrived to hear confessions and celebrate Mass on one of the ships in his group.

Even though he served in one of the most difficult campaigns of World War II, Harris doesn’t look back on those days with any regret.

11-06-14-vet-harris“I enjoyed my time in the Navy even though there was a war on,” he said. He still travels to military reunions but missed one held earlier this year in Arizona.

His son Joseph caught the Navy bug and served for 23 years, and Harris proudly recites the names of nieces, nephews and other relatives who have served. He thinks military service ought to be a requirement for young people.

“I think it’s about time that the rest of the public realizes what the military is all about,” he said. “I tell the kids today that if they get a chance to go in the military, and give it their best attention, when they come out they’ll be well prepared for anything that comes along.”