Veteran finally reveals secrets of past wars


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Burt Bice, center of back row, and John William Harris, left of front row, and Harris’ family held a party at the Brevard Veterans Memorial Center on Merritt Island.

Though John William Harris served in three major conflicts — World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and freely speaks about it to his family, there are details they have not yet heard.

That’s because after nearly 30 years in the Navy, the 90 year old still has plenty of experiences to share with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom live on Merritt Island.

Ten family members, his daughter Katheryn Harris, granddaughters and great-grandchildren recently gathered at the Brevard Veterans Center on Merritt Island, as he recounted more of his story.

John Harris told his story for the Veterans History Project, a program created by Congress, to capture through video interviews, the firsthand accounts of veterans who served in any capacity from World War I to the present and are no longer serving. 

The stories, recorded by Burt Bice, American Red Cross coordinator for the project, are archived in the Library of Congress, with local ones also held in the Brevard Veterans Center library.

“I was 17 years old and I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Harris said. “The Navy took me under her arms like a mother. The service brought me up and raised me.”

Born in Quebec, Canada, Harris’ family move to the United States when he was six months old. They lived in Brooklyn, New York, where he enlisted in the service. Harris, whose brothers also served, joined the Navy in July 1943 and, after more than 28 years, retired as a petty officer first class in April 1971.

“I am so proud of my dad,” daughter Katheryn Harris of Cocoa Beach said. “I never knew about the beach jumpers.”

Harris, who lives in Crawfordville, south of Tallahassee, served with the Navy Beach Jumpers, which specialized in psychological warfare and deception. Most of his career was on aircraft carriers.

“We’d put on a phony operation, meanwhile, the real operation was going on miles away,” he said.

Harris said he was fortunate that his ships were never hit by enemy fire, though the units were all in the middle of the wars. 

“I did see a lot of accidents on the carriers,” he said.

Shortly after the Korean War, a plane’s hook missed the cable on the carrier and went through two barriers, killing five sailors instantly. 

“He crossed the deck and slid,” Harris said. “It hit the flight deck officer and cut his legs off.”

One other sailor was hit by a cable and thrown overboard. He was never recovered.

“He had a flashback one time from World War II,” his wife Ann Harris said.

He served on the USS Ticonderoga and other carriers before the USS America near the end of his military career. His service took him to Europe, the Pacific, Korea and Vietnam, where he served time at Da Nang Naval Base.

“I learned a lot in the Navy,” Harris said. “They made men out of us.”